Opera as a genre is ripe for reinvention, as artists seek to engage audiences that have more entertainment options than ever. In Series’ Carmen in Havana gives a bold new spin on Bizet’s classic, pulsating with fresh, infectious energy while struggling at times under the weight of its own ambition.
In Series has teamed up with Washington Ballet Studio Company to produce a fusion of opera, ballet, and Cuban culture that’s teeming with personality. From the first number, wherein a trio of singers provides a jaunty musical backdrop to a parade of graceful ballet solos, it’s clear the audience is in for something wholly unique. Music director Carlos Cesar Rodriguez is the heart and soul of the production, providing the main musical accompaniment through spirited piano and peppering the production with quirky Spanish commentary. Under his steady hand, Bizet’s tempestuous story unfolds in a flurry of color, dance, and spirited song.
Directors Septime Webre and David Palmer have built a modern opera-ballet, with a passel of singers from the In Series stable singing the main roles as their ballet avatars spin and prance about the stage. This “me and my shadow” arrangement creates an ongoing series of interesting tableaus, but it can occasionally get chaotic as singers and dancers mix indiscriminately. Still, the early scenes start promisingly, marked by the highlight of Anamer Castrello delivering a silky rendition of “La Habañera” in the titular role. Castrello’s powerful mezzo-soprano and playful manner fit nicely with tenor Peter Burrough’s strong, earnest take on benighted suitor Don Jose.
Delicate soprano Rayna Rouweyha and barrel-chested baritone Alex Albuquerque, as Don Jose’s faithful love Micaela and boastful toreador Escamillo, soon complicate the situation with swirls of unrequited affection and fierce jealousy. The ballet company keeps pace with their own flurry of pieces ranging from classical solos to infectious Latin dances. The young members of the Washington Ballet generally acquit themselves well, led by the ten standout dancers of the Studio Company. Their youthful energy, flexibility, and joy of performance evoke the evening sprites from Midsummer Night’s Dream, an effect amplified by the brightly hued costumes (designer Donna Breslin.)
There’s so much to like here, and yet there’s often too much. From the flurry of dancers interweaving with singers, to the shifting styles and languages, to the oddly timed subtitles, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what is going on. At key moments, Castrello and Burroughs seemed to simply lose the beat, lyrics, or blocking, before resuming their overall quality performances. Some of the dancers struggled to stay on top of shifting time signatures and choreography, most notably with the complex body percussion and foot stomping of a lively “zapateo” number.
Those concerns aside, Carmen in Havana manages to breathe fresh life into Bizet’s classic opera that we’ve been seeing in various iterations this season, with an ambitious fusion of divergent forms. It’s both an engaging celebration of Bizet’s work and a culture lesson on wonderful, underappreciated Latin traditions. Despite the at-times chaotic presentation, this spirited new outing marks another auspicious chapter of In Series’ ongoing mission to push the envelope of opera, cabaret, and song.
Carmen in Havana was performed Februaary 5 – 7, 2016 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002.
Carmen in Havana. Adapted from Bizet’s Carmen. Director/Choreographer: Septime Webre and David Palmer . Music Direction: Carlos Cesar Rodriguez . Featuring Anamer Castrello, Peter Burroughs, Randa Rouweyha, Alex Albuquerque, Erin Passmore, Elliot Matheny . Music Direction and Piano: Carlos Cesar Rodriguez . Congas: Ivan Navas . Costume Design: Donna Breslin . Lighting design: Marianne Meadows . Stage manager: Katie Bucher . Produced by In Series with Washington Ballet’s Studio Company . Reviewed by Ben Demers.