In Series' Puccini, zarzuela double bill a double holiday delight

Photo: Imraan Peerzada

WASHINGTON, November 29, 2013 – The In Series opened its latest “pocket opera” double-bill last weekend at the GALA Theatre featuring a unique and intriguing musical bill of fare. The current program pairs Puccini’s rarely heard opera-ballet “Le Villi” (“The Villi,” or “The Fairies”) with a selection of popular zarzuela songs joined together in a clever plot and entitled “Heart of Madrid.”

In the 1880s, a youthful Puccini, with his soon-to-be-brilliant career still ahead of him, was struggling, like all young artists, musicians, and composers, for the 19th century version of a breakthrough hit. He decided he’d found the right vehicle for that breakthrough when he chanced upon a short story, “Les Willis,” by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.

Karr’s tale was itself based upon an old, central European legend about vengeful spirits that would set out to destroy the lives of faithless lovers—a tale that also served as the basis for Adolphe Adam’s enduringly popular ballet, “Giselle.” With the aid of librettist Ferdinando Fontana, Puccini put together an intriguing one-act opera with a strong ballet element, which he promptly submitted as his entry in a prestigious magazine’s 1883 one-act opera competition.

Roberto (Peter Joshua Burroughs) and Anna (Randa Rouweyha) in better times. From Puccini’s “Le Villi.” (Credit: Imraan Peerzada)

For whatever reason, Puccini’s “Le Villi” didn’t even place in the contest. But Puccini already had his champions, including Verdi’s best librettist, the poet and occasional opera composer Arrigo Boito. They backed the successful public premiere of “Le Villi” which was enthusiastically received by the audience at the work’s 1884 premiere in Milan.

Puccini continued to fuss with the work, keeping its compact length mostly intact while expanding it into two short acts separated by an intermezzo in his final 1892 version, which is generally the one performed today. When you can find a performance.

And that’s where the In Series comes in. While their current performances of “Le Villi” may not be the first to occur in Washington, we don’t recall hearing of any until this one. In any case, this little production will prove to be a delight for both Puccini fanatics and opera fans in general who are looking for something a little out of the ordinary that still won’t prove damaging to the ears.

The work itself is actually a little gem that ought to be programmed more frequently by larger opera companies when they stage a pair of one-acts—which almost always happen to be Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” All the reasons people still love Puccini’s work today are present, in a slightly embryonic state, in “Le Villi”: the lush romanticism, the soaring passion, the high drama, and, of course, the inevitable death of a Puccini heroine.

Topping it all off, “Le Villi” also delights with its brief but intense, purely instrumental ballet sequences.

Since the In Series is not the Met, they’ve downsized Puccini’s ambitious early effort, but quite effectively, we should add. The composer’s opera-pit-sized orchestral score here has been cleverly and effectively reduced by pianist and musical director Carlos C. Rodriguez, who re-scored it for piano, cello and violin. The cast size is reduced, and the “spirits” themselves largely reside in the person of marvelously effective dance soloist Heidi L. Kershaw.

SEE RELATED: Pianist Beatrice Rana in auspicious Discovery Series debut

Like most moral fairy tales, “Le Villi’s” plot is short and to the point. Guglielmo (Gregory Stuart) has given his consent for the marriage of his daughter Anna (Randa Rouweyha) to Roberto (Peter Joshua Burroughs). Not long after, Roberto allegedly has to take a trip away from the village but promises to return. Or at least he fails to return until Anna pines away for him and dies of a broken heart. Heedless of her plight, he’s actually been dallying indefinitely abroad in order to indulge in sins of the flesh.

Too late for the faithless Roberto. The spirits will take him on a dance of death and the restless spirit of Anna will be satisfied. (Credit: Imraan Peerzada)


When he decides to return and learns of Anna’s fate, Roberto is struck with remorse, but it’s too late. The vengeful forest spirits have got his number and engage him in an endless dance of death that can only end in his doom.

The story itself demands the addition of the dance element to the opera’s melodramatic plot. Puccini’s music veers between choral celebrations and more personal dramatic solos and duets. In the meantime, the forest spirits, represented in this production by Ms. Kershaw, haunt the periphery of the action, already knowing how the story will end and getting ready to play a part in it.

The cast of this production is highlighted by soprano Randa Rouweyha, a formidable talent who lends both vigor and pathos to her tragic role of Anna. It is her moving and effective embodiment of heartbreak that provides the emotional soul of this production.

Somewhat less effective during Sunday’s performance was tenor Peter Joshua Burroughs in the role of the doomed Roberto. He tended to be a trifle flat throughout much of this short opera’s first stanza, although he found his vocal footing in the second part. Perhaps the bitter cold outside the auditorium Sunday was partially to blame, as sudden temperature changes can and do cause unpredictable problems for opera soloists.

In the small but important role of Guglielmo, Gregory Stuart proved gracious, accurate, but a bit too retiring—almost certainly due to the fact that he bravely took on this part virtually at the last minute. He was called in barely three weeks before opening night to replace the originally scheduled baritone soloist Peter Brabson who had been forced to leave the production due, apparently, to personal circumstances. We suspect Mr. Stuart’s performances this weekend will be considerably more self-assured.

Mary Gresock, a member of the chorus in this production, was crisp and effective as well in the non-singing role of the story’s narrator.

The chorus itself performed with great vigor and expressiveness. They were sharp on each attack and followed Mr. Rodriguez’ tempi with great precision.

And speaking of Mr. Rodriguez. With his piano substituting, essentially, for an entire orchestra sans his pair of string players, his own accompaniment/performance was a marvel to hear and behold. He held the production strongly together throughout even as he directed from the keyboard. He also proved a formidable soloist during the frenzied, tarantella-like dances of the Villi during the central intermezzo as well as in the finale. Bravo!

After the program’s intermission, the musical mood lightened considerably as the company’s “Heart of Madrid” unfolded. This In Series-built assemblage of popular zarzuela numbers—zarzuela being, essentially, the Hispanic answer to operetta, light opera, and early Broadway musicals—is given a thin but workable plot via Elizabeth Pringle’s book.

Bartender Luis (Aurelio Dominguez), chanteuse Paloma (Adrienne Starr) and singer, sax player Pedrillo (Peter Burroughs) sort out the meaning of life in Madrid. (Credit: Imraan Peerzada)

Set in a Madrid bar, Ms. Pringle’s frame tale focuses on the sadly decaying marriage of Sam (Gregory Stuart) and his wife (Mary Gresock)—a marriage that, fortunately for them and for us, is gradually restored due to the magic of Madrid. 

The musical selection and the singing were genuinely first-rate throughout in this charming little production. Every soloist was in character and on target for every number, sweeping the audience along in a ringing and mostly positive endorsement of love and life, Spanish style.

Both Mr. Stuart as Sam and Mr. Burroughs as Pedrillo cast aside any uncertainties they might have had during their performances in “Le Villi,” turning in confident, exuberant performances here. They were joined with equal enthusiasm by the other singers in this large-ish cast, including Aurelio Dominguez, Adrienne Starr, Eduardo Castro, Adriana Gonzalez, Mary Gresock, Brendan Sliger, and Christine Soler.

The cast of Heart of Madrid is in a positive frame of mind. L-r: Adriana Gonzalez, Brendan Sliger, Aurelio Dominguez, Gregory Stuart, Adrienne, Starr, Eduardo Castro. (Credit: Imraan Peerzada)

Extra hat tips here go to Ms. Starr and Ms. Gonzalez for outstanding solos and characterization in this production. And an additional hat tip to Carlos Rodriguez who not only returned as “The Piano Player” and accompanist for the show, but also got to throw in a few witty ad-libs in character and in Spanish.

Rating: ** ½ (2 and ½ out of 4 stars)

The In Series’ pocket opera double-bill continues, with additional performances on Sunday, December 1, at 3 p.m. (matinee); and Saturday, December 7, at 8 p.m.

Opening Saturday, November 30, and running in repertory with this pair of pocket operas, will be the Series’ ambitious world premiere production of the late Chris Patton’s opera-musical, “A Family Reunion,” with a libretto by Bill Moses. In addition to opening night, additional performances of this new work will be staged Monday, December 2, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, December 6 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, December 8, at 3 p.m. (matinee).

Where: All performances of both programs will happen at the GALA Theatre at Tivoli Square, 3333 14th St. NW, Washington, DC 20010.

Getting there: Take the Metro’s Green Line to the Columbia Heights station. If you’re driving, there’s plenty of inexpensive parking in the adjacent Giant grocery store’s garage, off Park Rd. NW.

Tickets and information: Call the box office at 202-204-7763, or visit the In Series website.

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us section of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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