It is the nature of artists to dream. Italy’s great composer and national hero, Giuseppi Verdi (1813–1901), dreamed of creating an opera based on Shakespeare’s King Lear but never finished one. IN Series artistic director Timothy Nelson has fulfilled that dream. In the process, he reaffirms the status of IN Series as one of DC’s cultural treasures.
The Promised End, Nelson’s 2018 debut production as artistic director, returns as part of the District’s Shakespeare Everywhere Festival.
Verdi’s Messa da Requiem (text based on the Catholic mass for the respose of the soul) was composed in memory of Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873), a poet, novelist, and friend whom Verdi admired. It is performed by eight talented singers: Teresa Ferrara, Natalie Conte, Elizabeth Mondragon, Gayssie Lugo, Brian Arreola, Henrique Carvalho, Andrew Adelsberger, and Greg Sliskovich. The central drama features Helen Hayes Award–winning actor Nanna Ingvarsson depicting Verdi, King Lear, and Lear himself.
In a guest article for DC Theater Arts, Nelson writes;
The words themselves come from the play, but also from an essay on King Lear by the world’s leading Shakespeare critic, Marjorie Garber. It is a tour-de-force performance for the actor, Nanna Ingvarsson, who must learn a solo text not only of epic proportion but one in which each block of text is connected to a bar, a beat, a phrase of music. Nothing like it has actually ever been tried to my knowledge.
Verdi was not only the author of such perennial classics as Rigoletto and La Traviata. He became a symbol of the Risorgimento, a 19th-century movement for Italian unification. Verdi was also obsessed with Shakespeare; Macbeth (1847), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893) are three of his finest operas.
The Promised End, the realization of Verdi’s long-lost dream, begins like this:
Milan, Italy: A large grand piano. A concert bass-drum in the back. We are at the Casa di Riposo, a retirement home for impoverished elderly singers and musicians. The Casa, founded by Verdi, is still funded from his estate.
Verdi (Nanna Ingvarsson) enters, dressed as Verdi in a maroon jacket and black cravat.
1901, at the turning of the century, the edge of time,
What should the heart speak? Love and be silent?
Speak what it feels, not what it ought to say?
The oldest have borne most, those that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so lo…
Verdi is interrupted by the choir, who are still backstage. They are singing the “Va, Pensioro” chorus from Act 3 of Verdi’s opera Nabucco (1842). Known as “The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” who long for freedom and a return to their native land, it has become an unofficial national anthem of Italy.
Verdi walks to the piano and, as “Va, Pensioro” ends, plays the first notes of the Requiem. A little later, he says, “Meantime we shall express our darker purpose,” from Act 1, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
We learn about Verdi’s life, which was not without tragedy. He lost two children and his wife while still in his twenties. The connection with Lear’s loss of Cordelia forms an underlying echo.
The storm scene from Lear encapsulates the human condition, as does the Requiem. The Dies Irae, representing the Day of Judgement, rings out with terrifying grandeur. In a sense, the music becomes the storm, as Lear cries, “Blow winds and crack your cheeks!” Lear’s madness intensifies. The script is festooned with quotes, from Shelley, Yeats, Pascal, even Edward Albee.
The eight singers are all spectacular. Kyrie Eleison becomes a heart-rending plea for mercy. The intimate nature of the experience, with singers and a piano rather than the accompanying orchestra, allows us to appreciate more fully the sheer beauty of the human voice.
In the Dies Irae, the cast surrounds Ingvarsson, menacing her with their presence. Later, three of the singers surround Ingvarsson, attempting to comfort her. This is, paradoxically, during Lear Act II, Sc. 4, during which Goneril and Regan take Lear’s knights away. In a shocking reversal, Ingvarsson pushes them away, calling them “Unnatural hags!”
Ingvarsson’s acting is consistently magnetic. She plays Lear, the Fool, even Gloucester, with equal commitment. Marjorie Garber’s essay on Lear from her book Shakespeare After All provides significant insights into Lear, the Fool, and the deeper implications of the play.
Director Steven Scott Mazzola’s staging is innovative and graceful. At times the singers sit in the audience. As actors they hold their own, providing context and emotion to the music itself.
Set design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson is visually appealing, with projections featuring Verdi’s Otello. Marianne Meadows’ lighting design is equally effective. Costume design by Maria Bissex is a symphony in white. Music director Emily Baltzer (and the music is truly glorious) is also the pianist.
There is one caveat: Lear’s (and Verdi’s) story is sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the music. The text becomes difficult to follow and many key scenes are not as accessible as they could be.
However, the wonder of the music more than compensates for this defect. And who among us can say we realized the dream of a genius?
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Promised End presented by IN Series plays from to December 10, 2023, at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$55) can be purchased online. The Promised End also plays from December 15 to 17, 2023, at Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore, MD. Tickets ($20–$30) can be purchased online.
COVID Safety: Masks are recommended for all patrons.
The Promised End
Shakespeare’s King Lear
Imagined and Constructed by Timothy Nelson
Adapting an essay by Marjorie Garber from her book Shakespeare After All
WITH Nanna Ingvarsson
AND Andrew Adelsberger, Brian Arreola, Henrique Carvalho, Natalie Conte, Teresa Ferrara, Gayssie Lugo, Elizabeth Mondragon, Greg Sliskovich
Director: Steven Scott Mazzola
Music Director and Pianist: Emily Baltzer
Set Design: Jonathan Dahm Robertson
Costume Design: Maria Bissex
Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows
Timothy Nelson on an unlikely mashup: IN Series’ ‘The Promised End’ (by Timothy Nelson, November 8, 2023)