What’s real and what’s illusion? This is the key question raised during this impassioned performance. In Lady of Spain, the first of this In Series double bill of “lounge operas,” (and the only one reviewed here), the frame story is about two real-life performers, mezzo-soprano Patricia Portillo and tenor Nephi Sanchez, who play impassioned characters.
Yet to what extent can real life performers become infatuated with each other off-stage? Where should the line be drawn between art and life, between stage life and real life? Patricia and Nephi make music together on stage, but does that mean they make love off-stage in real life? The frame story about a developing flirtation is an excuse for the two singers to perform a recital of opera arias. Mezzo Patricia and tenor Nephi Sanchez, with well-matched voices, go by their first names as characters in the show, and take us on a musical tour of the “passionate heart of Spain.” Or as Patricia aptly describes the experience in Act II, this is a “…crazy journey of the heart.”
The set design by Greg Stevens is lush and eclectic. An inlaid laminate floral pattern on the stage floor looks like a Victorian carpet.. Large potted fern plants and kitschy draperies complete the picture. Red, blue and yellow paper lanterns dangle from the ceiling. Members of the audience are invited in to sit at six or seven, candle-lit small tables, draped in red. We are either in a bistro or a nightclub or a 19th-century parlor. It’s definitely eclectic.
So what is a “lounge-opera”? Before hanging out at the mall or going to movie theaters, or staying glued to their cell phones became the thing to do, informal gatherings of friends and families used to share parlor performances by singing music at home around a piano. In Series updates the custom to a cozy bistro setting. A “lounge opera” is a series of operatic arias out of their context, performed with levity as solos or duets in an intimate recital.
Mezzo-soprano Patricia Portillo, tenor Nephi Sanchez, who play themselves and a menagerie of operatic characters, and the amazingly nonchalant, flamboyant pianist José Cáceres, entertain us with hot and super-romantic Latino pop hits mingled in with some spicy duets from zarzuelas and well-known opera arias. With clever, humorous, spoken dialogue, strung together and directed by Elizabeth Pringle, Lady of Spain is about the worship of the romantic Spanish Lady. It’s a song-fest about the Latino Woman, with a capital W. It’s Latino music diversity, taken out of context and built on a theme. Excellent program notes help.
Portillo possesses a flexible, lovely mezzo voice that is able to convey subtlety with diminuendo for dramatic effect, and who wickedly bats her eyelashes with facial expressions that put across emotion without sound. Sanchez has a rich tenor voice that commands our attention. I liked the way both singers soft pedaled and underplayed the histrionics.
Sanchez opens the show with the well-known 1931 American pop song “Lady of Spain.” [Lady of Spain, I adore you. Right from the time I first saw you.“]
First we meet the wily Servant Girl in the zarzuela Tango de la Menegilda, who learns to better her life by using her wits. It’s delightfully delivered by mezzo Patricia Portillo, who downs a full glass of champagne or wine as she practices her flirtatious trickery. This number is followed by a famous seduction in Mozart’s, “La Ci Darem La Mano [There I will take your hand],” from Don Giovanni. This is the duet in which the noble rake Don Giovanni seduces the peasant girl Zerlina by promising her marriage. It is given a cool, offhand rendering by Portillo and Sanchez, with endearing touches of business, such as on their exit, they behave like naive kids holding hands and swinging their arms: “Let’s go to discover the truth of innocent love.” Delightful.
The first act climaxes with two well-known arias, Portillo sings in French, from Bizet’s Carmen: the Habanera and the Seguidilla. Another side of love is presented via the capricious, heartless woman, who cannot stick with one man. But Portillo adds a touch to play the moment right-on, as if she’s excessively involved emotionally with Nephi Sanchez. “Just give me 15 minutes to collect myself,” she croons, making a smooth, satiric transition, that sends us lighthearted into the intermission.
But by far, the highpoint of the show is “Stride La Vampa” [The Fire is Roaring] from Il Trovatore by Verdi. It’s the perfect role for expressive-faced Patricia Portillo, who can project demon-like vengeance. Dressed in a golden floor-length robe, trimmed with spotted leopard skin, (costumes by Donna Breslin) Portillo as Azucena sings the story of her mother, burned at the stake as a witch. We see the Latino woman as a chilling outcast, a witch persecuted for being different.
Moving on, Sanchez gives Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love well-modulated, expressive delivery of “Una Furtiva Lagrima [A Secret Tear]” although you really need the full context of the story to fully appreciate the painful restraint between the two lovers.
So why see this show? The ultimate question Patricia asks. To what extent can you bring your personal life into performance on stage? What’s real? And what isn’t real? Just one exalted moment, such as the one from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, sung by Patricia as Rosina, makes seeing this show worthwhile. For me, personally, it was a moment remembered that I enjoyed with someone I loved very deeply and lost recently. How else can I reach within myself and touch those precious feelings and memories? A show like this accomplished that for me. I loved it.
Running Time: About one hour, with one 15-minute intermission.
Lady of Spain: A Lounge-Opera Romantic Romp . Directed by Elizabeth Pringle . Musical direction by José Cáceres, pianist . Produced by the In Series Pocket Opera Company . Performed at Source . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Lady of Spain: A Lounge-Opera Romantic Romp plays in rep with Concionero Latino: A Latino Romantic Songbook May 30 and 31 at Source, 1835 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009. Details and tickets.