A pocket-scaled pairing of ‘L’histoire du soldat’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’

It’s a fallacy to think that community theater or community opera are necessarily altogether different from their larger and more polished brethren. Take the InSeries, which has been presenting professional, small-scale music theater of various forms for 30 seasons. Its latest double bill, which runs at the Gala Hispanic Theatre through June, is a pocket-scaled pairing of Stravinsky’s “L’histoire du soldat” (in the version for three instruments: violin, clarinet and piano) and Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” (with piano accompaniment).

But some of the audience members probably attend the Washington National Opera once in a while — and indeed, even some of the singers overlap. The role of Rinuccio, or Ricky, was taken by Jesús Daniel Hernández, who joined the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program some years ago as a protege of Placido Domingo and who is evidently working on building up his résumé out in the wild.

The InSeries probes the limits of theater, opera and community. Strictly speaking, it is not community theater, except in the sense that the company has developed a community of its own, thereby representing the kind of smaller-scale event essential to the fabric of a city’s musical life.

Strictly speaking, “L’histoire du soldat” is not an opera, either, as the company’s energetic founder, Carla Hübner, observed in her pre-performance comments from the stage. Here, it became a lively pageant, with choreography by Jaime Coronado that sent the soldier (Jase Parker) wheeling across the stage, and Heidi Kershaw as a dynamic she-devil, a cut above. It’s not unprecedented to put this work on an operatic double bill; the Castleton Festival paired it with Manuel de Falla’s “Master Pedro’s Puppet Show” in 2010.

Both works, “Soldat” and “Schicchi” (pronounced SKEE-ky), have to do with the wages of a questionably lived life; where Stravinsky’s soldier sells his soul to the devil and then reclaims it (or does he?), the title character in “Schicchi” dupes a family by masquerading as a dying relative to revise his will, but updates that will in his favor rather than in the family’s. Both works were written in the same year, 1918. The resemblance ends there. It’s even a stretch to present the large-scale, though one-act, “Schicchi” as a chamber opera; its music certainly taxed some of the singers Monday night and kept Frank Conlon, the pianist-music director, more than busy on the keys.

“Schicchi” is also a comedy, made even more broad in this version by transposing the action from medieval Florence to 1960s-era South Philly. Bari Biern, who originally created the English adaptation for the Philadelphia-based company Poor Richard’s Opera, had to do some not entirely successful scrambling to transform Rinuccio’s paean to Florence into an ode to the Eagles and other Philadelphia joys. But Rick Davis, who directed both pieces, did an impressive job creating a stage full of distinct, clearly drawn characters — something rarely seen in this sometimes-complicated little piece.

You don’t go to this kind of event expecting to hear the next Domingo; you go for the intimacy and directness that you don’t always get in a bigger opera house. But Gene Galvin as Schicchi turned in a more-than-respectable performance, quietly giving the character more weight than the others onstage without rubbing everyone’s face in it, and offering solid singing to boot. Laura Wehrmeyer was accurate if a little shrill as his daughter, Lauretta; Lew Freeman was redoubtable as the family’s elder statesman, Simone; and Grace Gori was dramatically if not vocally effective as the snobbish and elegant matriarch, Zita.

Hernández, unfortunately, seems frozen in a relatively primitive stage of development. He seems happiest when he can haul off and make a big, “operatic” sound at full volume, and he does this creditably. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in ensemble singing or even in singing on pitch when it comes to the smaller, in-between notes; these were often downright ugly. Singing involves a lot of careful setting up; standing there and making a glorious noise is the payoff after getting all the other parts right. In the larger career picture, this kind of small, undervalued production could be a great way for a singer to set himself up for his future. Unfortunately, Hernández didn’t seem to be getting it.

There are two more performances: Saturday at 3 p.m. and Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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