Being a bit of a skeptic with regards to musical theater, I nonetheless picked up opening night tickets to The In Series‘ pocket opera double-bill of Barber & Barberillo. The title is a play on words and a nod to the linkage between the two features, Samuel Barber’s American chamber opera A Hand of Bridge and Francisco Barbieri’s zarzuela El Barberillo de Lavapiés (the Little Barber of Lavapiés).
A Hand of Bridge, the 1959 jazz-tinged American opera by Barber and his partner Giancarlo Menotti, is a humorously devastating examination of the inner monologues of two card-playing couples. Spanish tenor Alvaro Rodriguez sings the part of Bill, an attorney having an affair and wondering with whom Cymbeline, his lover, keeps company tonight. His wife Sally, played by mezzo Chris Stewart, laments her partner’s poor play but fails to question why because she is similarly held in thrall. The object of her affections, rather than being another person, is instead a hat adorned with peacock feathers. The standout performer here is soprano Randa Rouweyha as Geraldine. As Bill makes a sloppy play that trumps his wife’s queen, she observes wryly that the face card is far from the only female whom Bill has neglected. She wonders who holds Bill’s attention, and in doing so lets slip to the audience that Bill’s current crush is far from his sole indiscretion. Geraldine laments her lost relationship with her dying mother as her stockbroker husband David, played by the Peruvian baritone José Sacín, wallows in existential angst over the monotony of his bridge-playing existence and the all-consuming jealousy directed towards his wealthy boss.
The transition from the American Barber to his Spanish homonym was accompanied by a short speech from In Series Artistic Director Carla Hübner, which provided the time for the set changes necessary. Ms. Hübner informed the crowd that, for the first time in In Series history, supertitles would be employed to allow for Barbieri’s opera to be sung in the native Spanish. The text of the zarzuela would come from the English book by librettist Elizabeth Pringle. This piqued my interest, not least because I still had my doubts about anyone’s ability to execute a big, bold production such as this on the relatively diminutive Source stage.
The updated libretto adds a modern frame story that shatters the fourth wall of Barbieri’s 1874 opera, as a pair of obnoxious late-comers played by Rodriguez and Rouweyha find themselves unwittingly drawn into the story replete with language skills they did not know they possessed. While the performers handle the transformation of the troglodytic “Larry” and nasal “Marge” into the aristocratic “Don Luis” and “Estrella, Marquise of Bierzo” capably, the story within a story fundamentally alters the arc of Barbieri’s opera to append a saccharine, feel-good ending to the sotry.
The interior story revolves around the romance and machinations of the titular Lamparilla, the mischievous barber of the Lavapiés section of Madrid, and the seamstress Paloma. The animated tenor Peter Joshua Burroughs is aptly cast as the puckish barber, and the sultry Puerto Rican mezzo Anamer Castrello shines as the object of his affections. Estrella, known as the Marquesita, and Don Juan de Peraltz, played by Sacín, plot the overthrow of Chief Minister Grimaldi. Complicating the plot is the Marquesita’s romance with Don Luis, who happens to be Grimaldi’s nephew. In the middle of all the intrigue, often unwittingly, is our barber. He helps the Marquesita escape not only her fiance, who suspects an affair between her and Don Juan, but also Don Pedro, the captain of the town guard, sung by baritone Alex Alburquerque. Don Luis enlists Don Pedro to observe the goings-on of the Marquesita and Don Juan in the rousing finale to Act 1, but the only person arrested unsurprisingly turns out to be our barber.
The subsequent two acts follow the romance of Paloma and Lamparilla, their role in the plot, as well as their efforts to re-unite Larry and Marge, whose affair mirrors the arc of their aristocratic alter egos. The additional overhead of the frame narrative waters down much of the rich back story and intrigue behind the zarzuela, and results in a denouement that feels somewhat artificial. The set design leans towards the Spanish surreal, despite its stark minimalism. The cramped quarters of the stage render the trio of dancers, led by choreographer Heidi Kershaw, little more than an afterthought. These distractions do not detract from the strong vocal performances of the leads, particularly in the Act 3 quartet where Lamparilla and Paloma teach Don Luis and the Marquesita how to blend in with the “majos” and “majas”, the Madrilenian townsfolk seen throughout the opera, in hopes of escaping the guard. Director Rick Davis ably employs the vocal and acting strengths of his leads to smooth over this production’s noticeably rough edges.
The In Series embraces innovation in opera, theater and cabaret, with a focus on Latin programs. Barber & Barberillo runs on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at Source through January 22.