The In Series opera company wants audiences to forget they’re seeing an opera. So for its “Pocket Opera on 14th Street” double bill, playing now at the Source Theatre, director Joe Banno made the unusual choice to present Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci with the lesser-known María la O by Ernesto Lecuona. It’s a novel and, ultimately, entertaining production from the In Series, currently celebrating its 10th year as an independent company.
Pagliacci (“The Clowns”) is almost always paired with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, so the decision to perform it with anything else is a statement in itself. What that statement is exactly is not immediately apparent. Pagliacci is a widely performed 19th century standard of Italian opera. María la O isn’t totally obscure; it is known to those who follow Cuban zarzuela—-which is to say, almost no one. But the zarzuela style—-poppier, and featuring more spoken parts than opera—-fits well with the In Series’ philosophy of making opera more accessible to the masses.
As it turns out, the two stories are pretty compatible. Both are about performers caught in love triangles. Banno further synthesizes the two by setting both in the 1950s: Pagliacci in Little Italy, and María la O in pre-revolutionary Havana, that much-romanticized period when the island was still a playground for colorful mafia thugs. It’s an economical measure that allows the production to double up on sets and unflattering period costumes: pleated pants, ventless suits, and stretched out undershirts that give tenor Peter Burroughs’ back hair a supporting role.
María la O stars Anamer Castrello as the titular character, a Cuban lounge singer of humble origins who mostly sings about herself. The nightclub setting, updated from a 19th century sugar plantation in the original, allows her to channel Celia Cruz without seeming too incongruous. Indeed, Castrello’s effusive and throaty singing is a nice testament to the late salsa legend.
Pagliacci is about a clown troupe that includes a jealous husband (Peter Burroughs) and wife (Randa Rouweyha). Forbidden romance is at the center of both: Between the mixed race Maria and a white American actor (in the original, a Cuban aristocrat) in the first, and between Rouweyha and a lovestruck fan (Alex DeSocio) in the second.
As opera companies go, the In Series is among the most consciously audience-friendly. Thus librettos are translated into English with songs sung in the original Spanish and Italian—-thankfully with none of the rapid diction and clipped syllables that characterize Cuban Spanish. With more dialogue and action, the In Series’ productions occupy an awkward middle ground between opera and musical theater. It’s a niche that’s difficult to fill, and not without its rough spots. It’s clear that the performers are trained as singers and not as actors: One missed his cue and fumbled his line at Saturday’s opening. And Banno’s football-field set design, with the audience split between two opposite sides of the stage, is problematic during numbers when singers inevitably have their backs to at least half the crowd.
For the most part though, the small cast (just 10 performers) and intimate sets are refreshing for opera fans used to peering through those silly binoculars from a distant balcony. It’s a challenging formula to attract people who don’t really like opera without turning off those who really do. But considering the former greatly outnumber the latter, the In Series figures it’s worth the gamble.
The Maria la O/Pagliacci double bill runs through Saturday, Jan. 22 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. $39. (202) 204-7760.