Monday, January 10, 2011

'Maria la O' and 'Pagliacci'

The InSeries, one of Washington's artistic jewels, opened another of its inventive "Pocket Opera" small-venue productions at the Source Theater on Saturday for a two-week run. The pairing this time brought Ernesto Lecuona's zarzuela "Maria la O," together with Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci," each plopped down into the 1950s. And if the love entanglements for the two operas seemed to mirror each other (Maria is jilted in the first and Canio - alias Pagliacci - is cuckolded in the second) that was entirely intentional.

Producing Artistic Director Carla Hubner regularly enlists outstanding talent to run her shows, and this was no exception. The "orchestra" was, literally, in the hands of pianist/music director Carlos Cesar Rodriguez, a Placido Domingo sidekick who, with the assistance of congas player Linnette Tobin in "Maria la O" and accordionist Paul Aebersold in "Pagliacci," filled the small hall with impassioned accompaniment. Director Joe Banno (a Washington Post freelance music critic) made wonderful use of the single small all-purpose restaurant/club set and got his singers to express, in subtle nuance, what, for grander venues, might have required bolder statements.

It's not easy to find a company that can adapt to two such different idioms and, on the whole, the 10 singers Hubner collected did this well (although it must be said that the gap between those brought up dancing to Latin rhythms and those who weren't was wide and, at times, amusing). To both Fred, the cad in "Maria la O," and Canio, the cadded-upon in "Pagliacci," tenor Peter Burroughs brought assured acting and vocal power. Anamer Castrello was a wonderfully seductive Maria la O, and Laura Wehrmeyer was perfectly outrageous as her ditzy nemesis, the starlet Tula Smith. Baritone Stanley Webber, who seemed uncomfortable as the bartender in "Maria la O," was a splendidly menacing Tonio in "Pagliacci" and offered perhaps the finest singing of the evening. Pablo Henrich-Lobo brought to his second-tier roles in the two operas both riveting characterizations and fine singing. Randa Rouweyha gave the role of Nedda, Canio's unfaithful wife, a nice combination of toughness, brittleness and fragility, and, although Alex DeSocio, as Silvio, Nedda's lover, struggled with stage presence, he sang quite beautifully. Jase Parker, Fabiola Echazabal and Chris Herman handled their smaller roles well.

The bilingual revisions of both libretti were highly effective, sliding between Spanish/English and Italian/English with a rhythm and grace that preserved the lilt of the originals while ensuring that no one missed the missing surtitles.

- Joan Reinthaler

Marc Bamuthi Joseph

On Saturday, as in previous shows, Marc Bamuthi Joseph's words sang and his feet spoke. For a night at Dance Place, this multitalented veteran hip-hop performance artist presented a scorching program of excerpts from previous shows and one preview of a work in progress.

Trained in tap and hip-hop, Joseph is a natural mover. Rhythm powered his body, voice and words. He conversed with the audience, wove tales and moved easily from serving as the teller to being in the tale itself.

From the choreopoem "Word Becomes Flesh," this National Poetry Slam champion warned his unborn son of the dangers of a black man's still-shackled mentality, which he cleverly conjured into corporeal form. Body low, legs twisted and head off-kilter, he reached out with a clawed hand to pull what he called "brown boys" into thinking less of themselves.

During breaks, he related the experience of watching an unintentionally funny performance artist who wears one Converse sports shoe and one pink ballet pointe shoe, and climbs in and out of a plastic bag. Joseph commented on this with a droll tone and twinkling eyes. His work in progress, "red, black and GREEN: a blue (rbGB)," deals with climate change and living green. The excerpted poem had his signature, indelible images, sound-selected words and lightning slips from speech to rhyme. Beyond that, it was hard to tell how this new work will shape up. Still, given his track record, anything he does will probably rattle your senses and tickle your brain.

- Pamela Squires

Yoro Ndiaye

The music of singer-guitarist Yoro Ndiaye, whose debut U.S. tour reached the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on Friday evening, has been called "Senegal folk'' and "acoustic mbalax.'' The latter tag refers to the West African rhythm associated with world-music star Youssou N'Dour, one of Ndiaye's patrons, and both terms highlight Ndiaye's penchant for easygoing tunes and unplugged instruments. Those folky elements were evident at Friday's performance, but so were many others, some of them considerably more forceful.

The dreadlocked Ndiaye performed with a five-man band, Le Yoon Wi ("The Way''), and it wasn't just the matching gray tunics and trousers that marked all six musicians as a single unit. The group played six songs, each averaging about nine minutes, and switched tempos and styles with the grace only a well-practiced ensemble can achieve. While the vocal melodies were mostly gentle, Ndiaye sometimes reached for piercing high notes that proved him a worthy pupil of N'Dour's delivery. The instrumental passages allowed all the musicians to solo, with no more emphasis on such traditional instruments as balafon (a wooden-keyed xylophone) and congas than electric guitar and bass.

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