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Regional identity is no joke in Spain. This reviewer visited a couple years ago and watched a local-election report on the news, wherein one reporter from Madrid was doing a person-on-the-street interview with a crotchety old man in a town in Catalonia. Or at least, he was trying to: The reporter kept asking the man questions in Spanish, and the old man kept responding in Catalan. The reporter was exceedingly polite but getting increasingly exasperated. Finally, he asked the old man, “But sir, wouldn’t you like to speak in Spanish so the rest of Spain can understand what you have to say?” The old man turned to the camera and said, in Spanish, “The rest of Spain can go fuck itself.”
So even in a smallish country like Spain, even in places where there’s no referenda or active independence movement, other regions can seem like (and be treated by writers as) totally foreign countries. That’s how another “autonomous community,” Andalusia, got to be the inspiration for every exotic trope in Spanish literature. You’d think for all the references to animal passions and blood feuds and olive-skinned beauties, from Carmen to Don Juan, that this was some remote island in the South Pacific, not some place three hours away from the capital by train.
The In Series, D.C.’s Ibero-American opera company, leans heavy on those Andalusian tropes in its current double bill, a production of Manuel De Falla’s 1905 opera La Vida Breve (Spanish for The Short Life) paired with a song-and-dance medley called ¡Viva Zarzuela! There’s plenty of hot-bloodedness and hand gestures and tragic Gypsies on display and, of course, lots of flamenco dancing, which is the best part of both: Director Jaime Coronado decided to throw in extra flamenco even during the musical interludes for which Falla’s opera did not call for any dancing at all.
As far as story, there’s not much to it; ¡Viva Zarzuela! is devoid of plot, a string of solo and duet numbers from the often risqué Spanish pop-opera tradition for which it’s named. La Vida Breve has the flimsiest of dramatic contrivances, universal enough to remind me of the plot of every single one of the Korean soap operas my mother watches: A poor girl named Salud (Spanish for gesundheit) falls in love with a rich boy named Paco (Spanish for cocaine paste), who leaves her for a fellow rich girl without so much as a proper breakup text. The inevitable unhappy ending is something even the most cataract-clouded myopic viewer can see coming a mile away.
But nobody watches these things to be surprised. Coronado’s take on Falla’s opera performs the same function for us that the original did a century ago for madrileños, gawking at those lusty, brawling barbarians a few hundred miles to the south. Thus the music is properly romantic—though not oppressively so. Both pieces are accompanied by a solo piano—the dancing is passionate, and the passion itself is quite explicit. (Kudos to Shaina Martínez and Peter Burroughs for delivering a duet from the missionary position.) The In Series’ singers don’t all have the most polished pipes, but they wail and gnash their teeth with conviction. And Martínez, as Salud, is superb, coloring her lovestruck declarations with alternately chirpy and plaintive inflections that underscore her naïveté and teenage hyperbole (“When he is late I feel like I have no life”). Also strong is Patricia Portillo as Salud’s grandmother, whose earthy, world-weary delivery contrasts well with that of her tragic-but-bratty granddaughter.
The same singers rotate through the tales of doomed romance that make up ¡Viva Zarzuela!, all taken from 19th- or early 20th-century zarzuelas, with notable performances by baritone José Sacín (who also plays Salud’s uncle), Portillo and Nephi Sanchez in a sweet duet, and tenor Pablo Henrich-Lobo, who took the lead as Nerdorino in the In Series’ Happy Days riff on L’Elisir d’Amore and is consigned to a bit role in the second bill. But it’s the dancing that keeps it from being a tiresome karaoke night and breaks up the melodrama in La Vida Breve. Nothing about the two productions is particularly novel. But for a taste of wine and bit of flamenco, the In Series offers pretty good domestic exoticism on a budget, just as Andalusia has offered the rest of Spain for most of history.
3333 14th St. NW. $22-$42. (202) 234-7174. galatheatre.org