Carla Hübner launched In Series in 25 years ago to feature edgy, shoestring-budget shows that mix and match opera with other sorts of music, including lighthearted Hispanic fare laced with dance, or slinky cabaret events. Her productions have sometimes faced rocky roads to survival, but Hübner, artistic director of the series, has continued to draw crowds to a variety of intimate venues for some appealing shows.
On Sunday, her company scored two more successes at the Gala Hispanic Theatre at Tivoli Square in Columbia Heights — a bustling space perfect for “pocket” opera. Hübner offered two operas: Giacomo Puccini’s “Le Villi” (“The Spirits”), his first stage work, coupled nicely with a lighthearted musical drama, “Heart of Madrid.” Both are rooted in old folk traditions with vivid settings and times of tragic misunderstandings.
Directed by Abel Lopez, “Le Villi” seethes with revenge. It retells a legendary tale from German romanticism teeming with passion and superstition. Believing Roberto, her fiance, would never return from a trip through the spooky Black Forest, Anna expires in grief. Her father, Guglielmo, steps in — the tipping point of the story — and vows revenge for Roberto’s supposed betrayal of his daughter. Meanwhile, an evil, sirenlike seductress has hooked Roberto into forgetting Anna. Propelled by her father’s call for revenge, Anna’s ghost sets out to haunt Roberto, forcing him to dance to death.
In Series used a trio for the Puccini, reduced from the original orchestral score. Violinist John Philligin III, cellist René Molina and conductor/pianist Carlos Cesar Rodriguez provided no-fail support and colors matching onstage emotions, though intonation was not always on the mark. Randa Rouweyha (Anna) and Mary Gresock (narrator and Anna’s spirit) handled their roles with conviction. Peter Joshua Burroughs’s Wagnerian voice, as accurate and nuanced as it was, dominated over the other singers in his performance as Roberto, especially over the rather timid singing of baritone Gregory Stuart (Guglielmo). Heidi Kershaw’s lithe dancing made for a properly witchlike sorceress. The choruses were clearly in the 19th-century Italian style, forceful in intensifying the drama’s changing emotions. The show’s small-scale set was cleverly supplied with convincing trees made of dark cloth, backed up with tasteful, if minimal, lighting.
Rodriguez returned with the orchestra accompanying “Heart of Madrid” (also directed by Lopez) with gusto and flourish. With a libretto written by Elizabeth Pringle, the production was laced with wry humor, earthy melodies and dynamic rhythms. Stuart proved stronger as a besotted Sam, who finally wins over his estranged wife, propelled by the hoots of the other patrons in the cafe. Most of the solo vocal cast, who also made up the ensembles, reappeared as various humorous characters. The company also pulled off the satire, saturating the story of love reunited.
The last performances of “Le Villi” and “Heart of Madrid” will take place Saturday, Dec. 8 at 8 p.m. at Gala Hispanic Theatre.
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly reported that Peter Brabson was the lead singer. Brabson was replaced by Gregory Stuart. It also reported that In Series launched in 1982. In Series launched in 1988.
Porter is a freelance writer.