DC’s In Series whisks ‘Carmen’ – and its audience – to Cuba

DC’s In Series whisks ‘Carmen’ – and its audience – to Cuba

In Series vocalists, ably assisted by young members of Septime Webre’s Washington Ballet Studio Company, surprise with a vivid cabaret-style edition of Bizet’s classic opera.

Washington Ballet Studio dancer Federico D'Ortenzi launches In Series' "Carmen in Havana" with a flourish. (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)

WASHINGTON, February 6, 2016 – DC’s feisty In Series continues to surprise audiences with its eminently audience-accessible twists on classic opera. The object of this company’s latest transformation is Bizet’s 1875 evergreen classic “Carmen,” a brilliant work of musical theater whose immortal hit tunes even opera agnostics somehow know by heart almost from birth.

The In Series’ scintillating “Carmen in Havana” is being performed for only a single weekend—this one—at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE. That up-and-coming DC commercial thoroughfare, BTW, now boasts the city’s all-new, overdue, legendarily budget-busting H Street trolley line whose spanking-new vehicles were running right on schedule Friday evening. (Without passengers, of course.)

Unlike those forlorn and costly trolleys, however, “Carmen in Havana” was absolutely ready for prime time Friday night, opening to a near-capacity audience with—dare I say it?—the kind of polished slickness and passion that at times can elude even our beloved Washington National Opera at times.

No matter which country you take her to, Bizet's feisty Carmen (Anamer Castrello) can certainly attract a crowd. (Credit: Washington Ballet Studio dancer Federico D'Ortenzi launches In Series' "Carmen in Havana" with a flourish. (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)
No matter which country you take her to, Bizet’s feisty Carmen (Anamer Castrello) can certainly attract a crowd. (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)

As is this company’s longstanding tradition, the Series’ update to “Carmen” is not exactly your father’s Bizet. It’s more like a classical cabaret re-mix, interspersing the opera’s most famous numbers and musical motifs (i.e., “Fate”) with Cuban and Latin tunes, setting this version in an indefinite time period perhaps somewhat closer to our own.

Yes, we still have that ultimate bad-girl, Carmen; her hapless lover Don José, his former good-girl fiancée Micaëla, and that dashing bullfighter Escamillo, along with all this opera’s memorable tunes. But we also get a helping of Latino faves like Ernesto Lecuona’s “Siboney.” It’s a little weird, but it works.

Better yet for this production, the Series has revived its successful partnership with Septime Webre’s Washington Ballet Studio Company for this current production. That company’s young and trainee artists danced their hearts and souls out Friday evening with remarkable grace and precision, clad in colorful costumes that lent this unusual production an appropriately Mardi Gras air.

The dancers and their costumes served another purpose as well. Rather surprisingly, this production employs no sets or props to speak of, leaving the good-sized stage of the Atlas Center’s Lang Theater totally open, save for a huge, rear stage backdrop, a sepia-toned sketched portrait of a large and presumably Cuban family.

This wide-open stage allows plenty of room for the Washington Ballet’s rather large cast of young dancers to maneuver, adding substantially to the energy and spectacle that drive this production. In addition, Donna Breslin’s costuming for both the dancers and the singers, strongly recalls the kind of simple, loose, traditional garments worn by the Caribbean and Latin American peasantry roughly a century ago, replacing those “missing” sets with an authentic atmosphere that renders them unnecessary.

The following rehearsal video from the In Series will give you an idea as to how this works:

As we’ve already noted, “Carmen in Havana” – deftly crafted by the Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre and David Palmer along with the show’s music director and pianist Carlos César Rodríguez – is a mixture of original Bizet and popular Cuban and Latino tunes, skillfully woven together to create a classical crossover that’s appealing to non-purist opera lovers and popular and traditional music fans alike.

The dancers substitute grace and motion for Bizet’s choral forces and also, at times, dance out the emotions of the opera’s principal characters, serving almost as spiritual or body doubles who execute in dance

Once again, Carmen shows her friends how it's done in Bizet's tavern scene. (Credit: No matter which country you take her to, Bizet's feisty Carmen (Anamer Castrello) can certainly attract a crowd. (Credit: Washington Ballet Studio dancer Federico D'Ortenzi launches In Series' "Carmen in Havana" with a flourish. (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)
Once again, Carmen shows her friends how it’s done in Bizet’s tavern scene. (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)

Better yet, the show’s cast of talented singers more than match the dancers in skill and enthusiasm.

At the top of the list, of course, is Carmen, the star of the show, vigorously and expertly portrayed in this production by the powerful and well supported voice of expert mezzo-soprano Anamer Castrello.

As one of opera’s least-likeable male romantic leads, Don José is a tough character to pull off. But tenor Peter J. Burroughs gives it a go, compensating for José’s weakness with extra dash and passion, although in both solos and duets his intonation seemed slightly imprecise in Friday evening’s performance.

A frequent and welcome performer at the In Series, soprano Randa Rouweyha was perfectly cast as good-girl Micaëla, delivering with perfection her character’s pair of heart-melting Act I and Act II arias.

Baritone Alex Alburqueque proved to be a real crowd pleaser in "Carmen in Havana." Note: Carmen really liked him, too. (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)
Baritone Alex Alburqueque proved to be a real crowd-pleaser in “Carmen in Havana.” Note: Carmen really liked him, too. (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)

Last but certainly not least among “Carmen’s” key characters, baritone Alex Alburqueque lit up the stage—and particularly Act II—with his electrifying, sit-up-and-take-notice portrayal of bullfighter Escamillo, particularly when he sang and smoothly swaggered through a virtually perfect rendition of this opera’s signature solo, the “Toreador” song. (And no, Mr. Alburqueque’s name is not a typo or a misspelling of New Mexico’s largest city!)

Plenty of kudos is in order as well for the Washington Ballet’s Studio dancers, particularly Federico D’Ortenzi, Zhenghong Cao, Ao Wang and Giselle MacDonald, along with Nardia Boodoo, Kimberly Cilento, Sarah Steel, Peishan Xie and Yossi Zorfaty.

Extra hat tips are also in order for Messrs. Webre, Rodríguez and Palmer who dreamed up this marvelous concoction of old and contemporary, and another to Mr. Rodriguez who energetically substituted for Bizet’s entire orchestra on the piano, with an assist from Caribbean-style percussionist Iván Navas.

Performance time Friday was approximately 2 hours (after a late start) with a single intermission between the equivalent of “Carmen’s” Act II and III.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of 4 stars)

The In Series’ Carmen in Havana is being performed for one weekend only, with remaining performances on Saturday, February 6, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 7, 2016 at 4 p.m. at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC.

For tickets and information, call the box office at (202) 399-7993. Alternatively, you can purchase tickets online via this link. Check with the In Series or the Atlas Center for parking suggestions, as parking can be a challenge during weekends on the increasingly bustling H Street corridor and on neighboring streets. online.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17