Seeing an opera at the Source is like having courtside tickets to a Wizards game. This is something you’re used to seeing from afar, if at all—-not a couple of folding chairs away from the action.
The In Series, a Latino-themed company that combines classical opera with cabaret, zarzuela, and other styles, makes the most of the tight spaces in which it performs, such as Source and Gala Hispanic Theatre. So its singers have the luxury of focusing more on nuance than projection, and connecting with their audience more personally. The result may be small in scope but, done right, it’s no less arresting than the most expansive Wagnerian jumbotron productions.
A certain degree of intimacy is perhaps inevitable, but what really allows the In Series to dump all of the emotional baggage of Dido and Aeneas and El Amor Brujo into your lap is the star of both, Anamer Castrello. The mezzo soprano, who had a tremendous turn channeling Celia Cruz in last year’s Maria la O, is a dominating singer with a deep register and smoky timbre, which seems to leave her typecast in tragic love story roles. She also has a wonderfully expressive face that is captivating to watch as she cycles through the full range of feelings symptomatic of a bad romance—-twice.
Maria la O was paired oddly with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and this double bill is no less incongruous. The first is a 17th-century English Baroque opera; the second a 20th-century Spanish gitanería (“gypsy scene”)-turned-ballet. Given its one-dimensional characters and rushed plot, Dido wouldn’t have been one of Henry Purcell’s best remembered operas if it wasn’t also his only opera. It tells of a love affair between the Queen of Carthage and Aeneas of Troy that is bungled by a trio of witches, played with corny gusto and bad disguises by Adrienne Starr, Adriana Gonzalez, and Tia Wortham (the thunder sheet announcing the “storm” they conjure only adds to the cheese factor). A string quartet saws through Purcell, whose spare, Puritan arias are not the best vehicle for Castrello’s vocal talents.
But the highlight is clearly the second bill, El Amor Brujo (“Love by Sorcery”). It’s a simple but riveting story of a woman exorcising her memories of a deceased abusive ex through a mix of song and dance. Thus dancer Heidi Kershaw is the other star attraction (she also provides some shock imagery to Dido and Aeneas, whirling about while bloodily impaled with an arrow), playing Castrello’s subconscious as it wrestles with Kyle Lang’s ghost in a pas de deux that is alternately tender and vicious.
Sweatbox opera does have its downsides. The lack of any projected surtitles makes both stories hard to follow through singing alone, particularly in Dido’s choruses. And emotive as she may be, Castrello’s enunciation is lacking; this carries through from Dido to Amor Brujo, so it’s not a language issue (an English translation of the latter libretto is printed in the program). But these are minor distractions. Castrello and Kerhaw’s performances would be worth seeing from a nosebleed seat; to see them up close, sharing a stage, is a real thrill.
The operas repeat Nov. 16-17 and Nov. 25-26 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. $20 -$40. (202) 204-7763.
Photo by Paul Aebersold