WASHINGTON, September 29, 2016 – Every year in DC, the performing arts almost literally erupt with a thicket of opening nights, making it tough for this reviewer to cover everything on time if at all. For that reason, we missed the opening night performances of the In Series’ first fall 2016 offering at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in northeast D.C., a snappy double bill of one-act light operas, pairing something old—Giovanni Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona” (“The Servant Mistress”) – with something not so old, Gilbert & Sullivan’s delightful mini-opera, “Trial by Jury.”
That said, we did make it to the final performance of these mini-productions, and are delighted to report that both the cast and the instrumentalists were in top form as were Jonathan D. Robertson’s spacious set and Robert Croghan’s colorful costuming.
Pergolesi’s short, 18th century opera buffa, “The Servant Mistress” was originally intended as a brief intermezzo, a bit of light entertainment staged between acts of the composer’s more serious and much longer opera, “Il prigionier superbo” (“The Proud Prisoner”). Unfortunately for the composer, his “opera seria” was a failure. But his lighter bit of halftime entertainment lived on and is still performed today as a standalone one-act opera.
The lighter-than-air plot of “Servant Mistress” revolves around the commedia dell’arte tradition of an old man being cuckolded by a younger woman, usually his much younger wife who’s been more or less forced to marry him against her wishes. In this case, however, the tables are turned, as Lord Hubert (Andrew Adelsberger) is gradually and skillfully conned by the aptly-named Serpinia (Annie Gill), his chambermaid, into proposing marriage. At the same time, the wily, determined Serpinia smoothly incorporates the unwilling but clueless Waspton (Alex Alburqueque), Lord Hubert’s manservant, into her plot.
In short, “Servant Mistress” is roughly 45 minutes of nonstop silliness, its characters and action updated to Edwardian England, and very loosely translated into eminently sing-able English by director Nick Olcott for these In Series performances.
Pergolesi’s sometimes tricky score was nicely sung by both Mr. Adelsberger and Ms. Gill. (Though a fine vocalist in his own right, Mr. Alburquque, doesn’t get much to do in this little opera.) An added plus was the fine performance by the accompanying 6-member In Series chamber ensemble, ably led from the keyboard by conductor Joseph Walsh.
A bit more substantial and considerably larger in scope was the Series’ second short opera, Gilbert & Sullivan’s more familiar “Trial by Jury.” Thematically, this G&S selection is the mirror image of Pergolisi’s short opera, which concluded with Serpinia’s successful effort to get a marriage proposal from Lord Hubert. Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury,” however, focuses on a marriage proposal gone bad, namely, the jilting of the lovely Angelina (Emma Gwin) by her disillusioned fiancé, Edwin (Samuel Keeler).
Prior to the action, Angelina has filed a “breach of promise” suit against Edwin, and, as the opera opens, we’re off and running with a case of jurors, plaintiff and defendant gone wild, all presided over by a wily, experienced judge (Lew Freeman) who knows how to spin English common law in unexpected ways.
Though quite short, “Trial by Jury” contains all the expected tunes and nonsense that G&S fan love to hear, even for the hundredth time. Preposterous legal arguments, outrageous interventions by both judge and jury, and histrionic performances by the principals designed to seduce the jury into favoring one party or another abound, seasoned with the always piquant social commentary provided by G&S, updated here and there by Nick Olcott, who directed this production as well.
In all honesty, this little Gilbert & Sullivan production may have been the In Series’ best effort yet. The singing was superb and the diction—always critical in G&S—was spot on with nary a silly phrase being lost. Soloists had their characters down pat, and the members of the chorus offered disciplined and uniformly jolly comments on the chaotic judicial proceedings throughout.
In key roles, Emma Gwin, as the glamorous, wildly over-acting Angelina, and Samuel Keeler as the hapless and clueless Edwin were at the top of their vocal and thespian games in this final performance. Notable performances as well were turned in by Sean Pflueger as the Forman of the Jury and by Annie Gill, returning from the Pergolesi to sing the role of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Court Reporter.
Last but not least: Lew Freeman’s bewigged and wily judge, who somehow keeps order in the court while carrying on his own little game on the side. Mr. Freeman captured the essence of G&S humor in this role, helping propel this short opera’s anarchical plot to its delightfully illogical conclusion.
Not only were the soloists and chorus on top of their musical game in this performance. They were clearly into the entire nonsensical G&S scene, which is just the way to make musical and theatrical magic happen. Happily, they were aided by another great performance from Joseph Welsh and his intrepid ensemble, perhaps the best one we’ve yet heard in an In Series performance.
Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)
We look forward to the rest of the In Series’ intriguing 2016-2017 season. Next up: “The Romantics,” featuring the music and poetry of Robert Schumann and poet Heinrich Heine, two of the 19th century’s artistic pillars. Two performances only, on October 23 and 29 at the Source in Washington, D.C. For tickets and information, visit the In Series’ website.
NOTE: An earlier version of this review spelled the name of composer Giovanni Pergolesi incorrectly.