WASHINGTON, November 14, 2012 – Almost with out warning, last weekend’s hot DC ticket proved not to be the latest showy production at the Kennedy Center or Signature. Instead, it was “Love and Witchcraft,” a double bill of pocket operas staged by the In Series in their home base at 14th Street’s Source.
The Series’ highly original idea of pairing English composer Henry Purcell’s English baroque Dido and Aeneas with Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo (Love by Sorcery, or more literally, Love, the Magician) offered audiences one of the more intriguing “compare and contrast” musical programs illustrated once again this organization’s uncanny ability to link the musical, the theatrical, and the literary in a single coherent package.
Latin fans who managed to plow their way through Virgil in 4th year Latin (like this reviewer) will already be familiar with the plotline of Purcell’s short opera. In the English composer’s work, we find surviving Trojan prince and warrior hero Aeneas in medias res, roughly halfway through the journey that transforms him from a minor figure in Homer’s Iliad to the founder of Rome in Virgil’s Aeneid.
As a demi-god himself—the son of Venus, goddess of love—it’s not surprising that Aeneas succumbs to the charms of the beautiful Carthaginian Queen who welcomes he and his weary army to her empire’s shores in what’s now modern-day Tunisia.
The two fall madly in love, but the gods order Aeneas to get back on the road and finish his mission to found Rome. Dido commits suicide, and her dying curse is eventually fulfilled with the eternal enmity between Rome and Carthage.
Purcell’s short opera deals in brief with this tragic love story while interpolating three crafty witch-prophetesses who seem to have been borrowed from Macbeth. All combine, along with a small baroque chorus, to weave this tragic tale into an exquisite tapestry of music, myth, and drama.
This short baroque setting proved nearly perfect for the In Series’ small space and instrumental resources. Accompanied by a string quartet plus conductor Paul Leavitt on electric continuo, the Series’ expert cast re-created in period costume both the charm and the poignancy that make this opera a small gem in the repertoire.
An added plus: the leads in this production proved impressively adept at executing the wicked vocal ornamentation that was customary in Purcell’s day.
The chorus seemed unusually fluid and comfortable in this musical environment as were the principals for the most part.
As Dido, Anamer Castrello demonstrated an impressive range and a genuine mastery of Purcell’s style. As Dido’s suitor, Aeneas, and her chief lady-in-waiting, Belinda, Robert Yacoviello and Patricia Portillo respectively were excellent as well, although both voices showed what was perhaps a bit of fatigue, possibly brought on by Saturday’s opening night performance. (We needed to catch the program on the following afternoon.)
Led by Sorceress Adrienne Starr, the three witches—Adriana Gonzalez and Tia Wortham were the other two—provided an amusing and entertaining comic intervals between this tragedy’s scenes, also adding a supernatural element to the proceedings; and the occasional appearance of dancers successfully added to the magical realism of this presentation.
The program’s second half featured de Falla’s El Amor Brujo, a work that’s actually a bit tough to characterize. Originally a “gypsy play,” then a dance piece by the composer, de Falla reworked it yet again into something that more closely resembled an opera. The In Series, as they often do, re-worked it again to highlight both the versatile talent of mezzo Anamer Castrello and dancer Heidi Kershaw who portrayed the person and the soul of this work’s central gypsy character, Candelas.
El Amor Brujo essentially takes place in the imagination of Candelas, a woman whose lover has recently died. She initially grieves for him, but, in flashback, also realizes that their relationship had been far from perfect; and, at the conclusion of this psychodrama, resolves to rid herself of his dominating spirit and start her life anew.
This de Falla short gave Ms. Castrello the opportunity to show another side of her talent. She morphed impressively from the constraints imposed by a baroque concept of Dido, into the hedonism of the wild gypsy woman who inhabited the dark, dissonant, distinctly 20th century Spanish-Moorish nature of de Falla’s musical style.
But an equal surprise was the intense, passionate, and erotic dancing of Heidi Kershaw who portrayed Candelas’/Castrello’s alter-ego and spirit. Her interpretation of the composer’s famous “Ritual Fire Dance”—the cathartic central event in this work—was itself on fire, one of the most exciting short dance movements we’ve been privileged to witness in many years.
Helping out considerably in this short work was dancer Kyle Lang who, as Candelas mysterious ghost/lover first dominates Candelas (in both iterations) but is finally cast out of her memory in ths end. Mr. Lang radiated a smoky spookiness throughout that gave his role its necessary impact throughout this strange short story.
The final surprise of this production was the In Series’ answer to Manuel de Falla’s famously colorful orchestration of this work—solo pianist-accompanist Carlos César Rodriguez. Playing the entire score from memory, Mr. Rodriguez lit into a piano reduction of de Falla’s score with a wild, fiery abandon and from memory, too. While an occasional note got lost in the shuffle, Mr. Rodriguez’ performance was an astonishing display of the kind of over-the-top Romantic pianistic brilliance we thought had passed away long ago, back in the 1960s. Bravo!
Sunday’s capacity audience was simply astounded by the whole thing, one of the most kinetic and interesting programs the In Series has ever managed to mount. If there’s any justice in the world, both this weekend’s and the remaining post-Thanksgiving performances will be sold out as well.
At last word, though, there were still plenty of tickets available.
So, if you’re looking for a classical-Hispanic fling at budget prices either this weekend or at the tail end of the Thanksgiving holidays, the In Series’ “Love and Witchcraft” double short opera bill is just the ticket. And you can get yours by visiting the In Series’ website here, or calling the box office at 202-204-7763.
Rating: ***½ (Three and one half out of four stars.)
Remaining dates for “Love and Witchcraft”: November 16, 17, 25 and 26. All performances at the Source,1835 14th St. NW in Washington, DC near Bar Pilar and Café Saint Ex.
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