WASHINGTON, June 17, 2017 – For seemingly no particular reason, the first half of 2017 has been a banner year for the operas of Carl Maria von Weber in the DC Metro area. Infrequently performed in the U.S., Weber’s pioneering operas and many of his other notable works are quite popular in his native Germany but are virtually unknown here.
First, in February, the Virginia Opera performed its updated English language version of Weber’s “Die Freischütz” (a title the company translated as “The Magic Marksman”) at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax, Virginia. This June weekend, in turn, marks the final performances of the In Series’ imaginative re-tooling of the composer’s delightful “Oberon” at Washington’s GALA Hispanic Theater.
As we were on vacation during this production’s opening performances last weekend, we were, unfortunately, late to the show. But we finally managed to see this new production Saturday evening, June 17, and we’re glad we did. Once again, the In Series has demonstrated its ongoing commitment to innovation and excellence as currently exemplified in its own English-language retooling of a neglected classic.
Although Weber’s sprightly Overture to “Oberon” is still frequently in use as a curtain raiser in contemporary symphony orchestra programs, the opera itself, popular through the middle of the 19th century and still occasionally performed in the U.S. gradually fell on hard times. The reason given by most critics and musicologists: its awful book and lyrics.
Composed in London as a 3-act Romantic opera / singspiel (with spoken dialogue) to an English language libretto by British dramatist James Robinson Planché, “Oberon” bears some superficial resemblance to Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But its story is actually based on a German poem, which, while dealing with a dispute between Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, actually employs a different interior plot line entirely.
In the original English version, to regain the affections of Titania, Oberon must somehow discover at least one pair of human lovers who persist in their love despite the often-spectacular obstacles thrown before them. This he does, discovering not one but two romantic couples, one upper class, and the other a bit lower on the social totem pole.
Both separately and together, the lovers encounter obstacle after obstacle, most of them involving wicked emirs, pashas and other assorted elements of Arabian Nights villainy, treachery and murder. But they all survive, love intact, and make it to the final act, during which Oberon and Titania also re-unite.
It’s an awkward, labyrinthine tale. In light of current events, it’s perhaps a bit indelicate as well in terms of international relations. But, as always, In Series comes up with the answer: “Send me rewrite!”
Nick Olcott, the stage director for this production, pulled out his pen and also served as the script doctor for a re-conceived English-language version of “Oberon’s” book and lyrics. His highly imaginative (and funny) re-conception moves this production much closer to Shakespeare and his comic sensibilities, dispensing with evil Arab caricatures and substituting a fiery (if unseen) dragon and a nasty (but easily distracted) pirate king as substitute villains. They work equally well if not better than the originals.
The resulting update is a musical and comic delight. It’s enhanced considerably by remarkably fine performances by both vocal principals and chorus members that’s made even better by the fine performance of the production’s unusually large 15-piece orchestra under the able direction of music director and conductor Stanley Thurston.
Adding to the production’s quality are the imaginatively medieval costuming designs of Donna Breslin and the crisply effective stage-within-a-stage set design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson, not to mention director Nick Olcott’s simple but effective effort to keep his soloists front and center, and thus easy to hear throughout the performance.
As always, the effectiveness of any operatic production rests depends on the vocal and acting chops of its lead performers. We have noted consistently throughout at least the last two In Series seasons that the quality of the In Series’ vocalists seems to improve inexorably. If anything, the company’s staging of “Oberon” kicks company standards up yet another notch, attributable to a cast of terrific singers who also possess an easy comic touch that enhances each character.
Although this opera pivots on the travails of its titular character, Oberon, the musical leads in Weber’s opera are (in this production) the Princes Rezia (soprano Cara Gonzalez) and her dashing knight, Sir Huon (tenor Sammy Huh). Both Ms. Gonzalez and Mr. Huh possess remarkably supple athletic lyric voices well able to support Weber’s fondness for rapid octave- and octave-plus vocal leaps.
Ms. Gonzalez also demonstrated considerable power in her frequent and showy solo moments, while Mr. Huh’s instrument, powerful as well, conjured up an extraordinarily delicate sweetness in his most ardent romantic arias.
Couple No. 2 – Sherasmin, Huon’s comical sidekick and squire (baritone Alex Alburqueque), and Floria, Rezia’s faithful lady’s maid (mezzo-soprano Anamer Castrello) – were no less effective in their decidedly more comic roles. We’ve seen and admired both these fine singers in other In Series performances, and it was good to see them both taking on substantial roles in this production.
Both Ms. Castrello and Mr. Alburqueque possess powerful, well-supported voices that serve them well in both solo moments and in “Oberon’s” infrequent but marvelous quartets and ensembles.
Back in the Land of the Fairies, these key soloists are aided and occasionally abetted by the wily Oberon (tenor Aurelio Dominguez) and his ever-capable and ever puckish servant-sprite Puck (mezzo Katherine Fili).
Both Mr. Dominguez and Ms. Fili do the heavy lifting in the spoken dialogue segments of this production, and seem to have worked out a charmingly vaudevillian approach to the scripts often over-the-top and frequently pun-derful Shakespearean jokes and allusions – a key element to differentiating this performing version with the creakier original. Yet both singer-actors capably handle their singing chores with grace and humor as well.
We’d be remiss without offering a big hat-tip to the In Series’ excellent chorus of literally sparkling fairies and sprites large and small. Scampering up and down the steep staircases and aisles of GALA’s main theater space whenever summoned by Puck or Oberon, this chorus was notable for its almost carefree precision and happy demeanor, both of which served to keep the production light, lively and enjoyable throughout.
While our review, unfortunately, is likely running too late to help ticket sales for Sunday’s final (matinee) performance, we think that if you haven’t taken notice of this rapidly improving small company before, the sheer excellence and polish of their recent productions should pique your interest in checking them out during their upcoming 2017-2018 season, which launches with a new English-language production of Mozart’s bizarre but delightful classic, “The Magic Flute” (“Die Zauberflöte”) in mid-September.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)
The final performance of the In Series’ updated edition of Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” will take place Sunday, June 18 at 2:30 p.m. at Washington’s GALA Hispanic Theater, located in the restored Tivoli Theater building, 3333 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20010.
For tickets and information, visit the In Series website, or call 202-204-7763. Discounted parking available for this venue located above and behind the theater in the Giant supermarket garage and deck.
Next Season: Brief details on the In Series’ 2017-2018 season are currently available on their website here, along with information on season subscriptions, which will be generously discounted for advance purchases made by July 5, 2017.
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