In its latest offering, the In Series has pulled a twisty, two-for-one punch with aplomb, presenting two Cuban Zarzuelas, based on the same novel, as Act I and Act II in a single show. It’s kind of a gutsy move, and it works wonderfully. But first, some background.
A zarzuela is a distinctly Spanish art form that marries lyrical, opera-esque music with dialogue infused scenes. There is also dance, but the most important element is powerful, insistent voices that beg you to follow where they go, often with tragic consequences (hence, the opera). This show is no exception.
Cecilia Valdés is a Cuban novel written by Cirilo Villaverde in 1839 about a beautiful, light-skinned mulata woman living in Colonial Havana who, as a baby, was taken from her black mother. While she doesn’t know the identity of her father, others do, as he is a powerful, wealthy, white slave trader. She enchants a young white student named Leonardo, who may or may not already be betrothed (of a sorts) to someone more of his ilk, Isabel Illincheta, while a man named Jose pines for her. Naturally, all does not end well as any student of history (and of love triangles) will tell you. In the 19th Century, white men did not marry mulata women, even the ones they impregnated—like Cecilia’s mother. Cecilia is a heartbreaking figure who, in a way, embodies the history and problematic (or, rather, dreadful and often cyclical) social culture born of slavery.
In the 1930s, two men turned the novel into a Zarzuela. Only one, Gonzalo Roig, got the rights to do so. The other, Ernesto Lecuona, as he had already written the music, simply changed elements of the story and slapped a new name on the heroine: María la O. Which brings us to today, where the In Series has packaged them together. Along the way, they condensed Cecilia from two acts to a brisk one and gave María a jazzy updating, setting it in a lounge in 1950s Havana, where Leonardo is now an American man named Fernando courting the titular songstress. He wants Maria’s life made into a film and, naturally, signs her role away to a comically ignorant white woman named Tula. Maria, shamelessly duped and betrayed by her lover, does not take this well. After all, as she reminds us, her life is not a story to be played. It is her life, which she has lived.
Maria & Cecilia: Zarzuela a la Cubana
closes April 29, 2018
Details and tickets
Cecilia is played by Fairouz Foty, whose rich, soaring voice seems to reach the cosmos at times, while Maria is played by Anamer Castrello, whose mezzo-soprano voice is equally stunning with warm undertones in every note. Peter Burroughs is both Leonardo (Cecilia) and Fernando (Maria), merging his resonant tenor with Foty and Castrello equally well. “Gran Duo,” the lovers’ duet in each piece, is a musical high point, as are Bryan Jackson’s songs as the thwarted Jose in both Acts. I could listen to his luminous baritone every day of the week.
Leonardo is a cad, no doubt, but Fernando seems to have remorse for his treatment of his ladylove. There is more nuance to the character that allows Burroughs to explore emotions beyond selfishness, which is all that Leo has got going on. But, the actress in this show is Cara Gonzalez, who plays Isabel (Cecilia) and Tula (Maria). It’s the latter where Gonzalez shines. Both Zarzuela’s have been adapted by playwrights with incredible wit (Anna Deeny Morales and Karen Zacarias), but Zacarias’ Maria is more fun; fun comes more naturally to a nightclub than to a plantation, no? Gonzalez’s Tula is a sad affair, lacking in awareness and desperate for fame and fortune. She’s willing to shoplift another’s life to suit her needs. It’s embarrassing to watch her at moments, and yet she snaps it together when needed, playing hardball with Fernando to get what she wants with chilling cruelty and weaponized sexuality. In Cecilia, it is Elizabeth Mondragon, playing Charito—Cecilia’s mother—in two brief scenes who brings the acting chops. She is despair personified as she holds her arms aloft as if her baby is cradled within, describing the moment white men appeared and tore mother and daughter asunder.
The music is nearly sparse—just the piano and the conga drums, which beat, beat, beat, blending a distinctly modern feel into the lyrical score. I know so little about the Zarzuela, but it seems that Cecilia and the original Maria probably intended for the music to bigger—full-bodied orchestrations befitting the romance of an opera. The lack of is almost striking, very zazzy, allowing the voices to reign. The choreography, done mostly by two dancers (Sylvana Christopher and Rosalyn Harris), feels more Afro than Cuban at times. The voices need no padding and the movements—loose, freeing, and flowing—mesmerize.
The set is borrowed (I think) from the current GALA production and, as a result, there are moments where the ensemble seems to be milling about, rather than moving with purpose. Also, it’s a lot of melodrama in a short span of time. Yet, it carries you, in large part because the implied backstory—especially in Cecilia—doesn’t need to be explicit. It doesn’t matter, necessarily, if Cecilia is a poor sugarcane field worker or a literate beauty kept in money by Anonymous Dad. Both scenarios are equally plausible. Both probably happened. Numerous times. The chord that matters is that Cecilia, and children like Cecilia, were denied their identity, used to the benefit or desire of others, and treated as less-than. Discarded.
Maria & Cecilia: Zarzuela a la Cubana is an artistic telling—multiple artistic tellings—of a common tragedy that Cuba, and others, has still not escaped and likely never will fully. For that, Cecilia Valdés and María la O remain painfully relevant, no matter the form: book, play, opera, one act, lounge set, Zarzuela, or a combo of all.
Maria & Cecilia . Directed by Abel Lopez. Co-Directed and Choreographed by Jaime Coronado. Music Directed by Carlos C. Rodriguez. Cecilia Valdes written/adapted by Anna Deeny Morales; Zarzuela by Gonzalo Roig and original libretto by Agustin Rodriguez and Jose Sanchez-Arcilla. Maria la O written/adapted by Karen Zacarias; Zarzuela by Ernesto Lecuona; original libretto by Gustavo Sanchez Lagarraga. Featuring Peter Burroughs, Anamer Castrello, Fairouz Foty, Cara Gonzalez, Bryan Jackson, Aurelio Dominguez, Adriana Gonzales, Chris Herman, Indira Martinez, Elizabeth Mondragon, Mia Rojas, Nigel Rowe, Scott Seder, and Jim Williams with dancers Sylvana Christopher and Rosalyn Harris. Percussion by Ivan Navas. Piano by Carlos C. Rodriguez. Production: Mariana Fernandez, Set Design for GALA’s Mariposas; Marianne Meadows, Lighting Design; Sehar Peerzada, Costume Design (Cecilia); Maria Bissex, Costume Design (Maria); and Jonathan Dahm Robertson, Projections Designer and Set Decorator. Stage Managed by Caelan Tietze. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.