Wednesday night, I was at the John F. Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater to review the debut presentation of a wildly bold experiment headed up by the eclectic and accomplished PostClassical Ensemble in an orchestral program, Entwined: A Double Feature. The event pairing also featured flamenco dancing and singing, projections where animation was created live on stage by visual artist Kevork Mourad, a staged reading of a new two-hander script with David Strathairn as the composer Manuel de Falla, and Robin De Jesús depicting 20th century’s greatest Spanish activist-hero-poet-playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. As an audience member, you could enter this evening’s alchemic collaboration through any of the parts represented, but, taken as a whole, it proved a dazzling feast.
Only someone as brilliant as Founder and Artistic Director Angel Gil Ordóñez — or as foolhardy — could have envisioned the ambition of such a project. Ordóñez brought all the assembled forces to bear to bring context to history in a re-examination of Spain’s cultural identity and place in the world through the music of de Falla, the poetry of Lorca, and their unlikely but profound relationship based on friendship and mutual artistic respect.
The first half of the evening draped a new work by playwright-director Derek Goldman (and Ordóñez’s Georgetown University colleague) on a bare room setting in an approximative experience of a tablao, or traditional flamenco venue. Chairs lined up, two of them taken up by stunning flamenco dancer Sonia Olla, originally from Barcelona, and her partner, the lustrous-voiced Cante singer Ismael Fernandez from Seville. Seated on the two outside chairs were American acting heavyweights Strathairn and De Jesus. Also in the lineup was flamenco guitarist Ricardo Marlow, who not only soloed rippling finger-plucking passages but doubled as theatrical Stage Manager and used a small hammer to bang out rhythmic patterns to delineate dramatic sections. All five took turns as in a good tablao, presenting the pain and darkness, the strength and fierce independence, and the outlier courage to celebrate what Goldman refers to as “the continual baptism of newly created things.” This pretty much sums up the cauldron that marked a revolution in Spanish art and culture in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
A spectacular moment lit up the auditorium when De Jesus “crossed over” from reading dialogue, cobbled from letters and other documents from the Lorca-de Falla relationship, joining together with Fernandez in a Cante duet. It was electrifying.
I only wished that in the first half of the program, the Postclassical Ensemble had not been relegated so far upstage as to be almost in the wings. Their music, played from a selection of de Falla’s work, was terrific in its feel for the composer’s rich, contemporary rhythmic variation but still grounded in classical melodic richness. The placement of orchestral and other elements was resolved in a much more satisfyingly integrated way in the second half of the program.
A little disappointing (which I hesitate to say, as I adore this man’s work as an actor) was the special guest appearance of Strathairn, carrying vestiges, as he did, of his last collaboration with Goldman, including an accent placed more in Poland (he had created a stunning portrayal of the Polish hero Jan Karski bearing witness to the Nazi death camps) than in the Iberian Peninsula.
At times the evening was dizzy-making, perhaps even confounding. Non–Spanish speakers must be forgiven if they longed for the opera world’s convention of projected supertitles to help with translation of de Falla’s chamber opera El retablo de maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show), which took up the second half of the evening. Ordóñez chose to excise such handholds, thinking it was more important to focus on Mourad’s artistically delightful and quirkily amusing visuals as well as to concentrate on the music of the Spanish language and sonorous world of composer de Falla.
It was a rare pleasure to hear this important early 20th-century chamber opera, which adapted parts of Miguel de Cervantes’ masterful classic text. Far from being romantic, harkening back to Spanish history in a fustian, nostalgic sense, the music uses the classic Don Quixote story to launch a radical contemporary score. When the piece was debuted in 1923, it was at a salon attended by a Who’s Who of the art, dance, music, and literati in the modern era.
Jennifer Zetlan sang the role of the Boy Narrator Trujamán with a clear, unornamented sound. Madrid-born Israel Lozano demonstrated he has fully developed as a mature, warm, and compelling tenor and showed command of delightful comic abilities. Peruvian bass-baritone José Sacin as Don Quixote conveyed that touch of visionary madness and, through his deep compelling voice, evoked our compassion while never failing to stir up our bemusement at his character’s antics. All three performers helped deliver the dual realities of a puppet play being performed within the play of Quixote’s travels.
Visual artist Mourad’s deft handiwork, bringing to life before our eyes characters and events, was nonetheless the star of the opera. Mourad allowed us into the process, and when we would catch a glimpse of a projected giant hand moving across the page sharing the world of his animated creatures, it was pure magic.
Over the entire evening, I was also aware of our own master “puppeteer” at work, El Maestro conductor, who had such an authoritative understanding of de Falla’s music. He brought out especially the sweet melodic solo of cellist Benjamin Capps, featured Mark Janello on harpsichord exploring its crisp sound used as a contemporary instrument, and drove the rhythmic variety of tempi and colors in horns and timpani with alacrity and brillo.
This was a one-night, standing-room-only event at the Terrace Theater. It’s the kind of intelligent yet wildly entertaining program that takes the audience on a journey into understanding culture that is at the very heart of what performance should be in this international capital.
The cast and creative credits for Entwined: A Double Feature are available here.