Washington’s eclectic “In” Series troupe opened its new production of Ernesto Lecuona’s “Maria La O” last weekend for the second time at the National Museum for Women in the Arts’ warmly intimate fifth-floor auditorium.
The original opening Dec. 1 turned out to be something of a dress rehearsal, as young Colombian mezzo-soprano Sandra Nino stepped in at the last second to substitute for ailing star soprano Anamer Castrello. The production was firing on all cylinders this week, however, and the small cast and instrumental ensemble magically transported an enthusiastic audience back to pre-Castro Cuba for an evening of scintillating Latin American music wrapped around the bittersweet tale of an interracial love affair.
Often called the “Cuban Gershwin,” classically trained pianist-composer Ernesto Lecuona was born in Guanabacoa, Cuba, in 1895 (some sources say 1896), the son of a newspaper editor. He was recognized early on as a musical prodigy and was first taught piano by his sister, Ernestino. He made his public debut as a soloist at age 5. Graduating from Havana’s National Conservatory in his midteens, he traveled to Europe and studied briefly with Maurice Ravel before launching his own concert career in the United States, a country that would draw him back again and again throughout his career.
Mr. Lecuona soon turned to composing songs, becoming a brilliant popular success not only in the Latin world, but in North America’s Tin Pan Alley. At times, his sheet music outsold recordings of his exotic songs.
Even today, the composer’s Latin hits, such as “Siboney” and “Para Vigo me Voy” (“I’m going to Vigo to dance”) which is known in the United States as “Say Si Si” are recognizable as popular tunes. Desi Arnaz’s signature song, “Babalu,” was yet another Lecuona confection, although Cuban music purists think Lucy’s husband camped it up too much.
Like Gershwin, Mr. Lecuona had a serious side as well, and he composed a number of classical works, of which “Malaguena,” from his “Andalucia Suite,” is the most famous. He also tried his hand at zarzuelas, or popular Spanish operas, and of his works in this genre, “Maria La O” is perhaps his most famous.
As a result of his increasing international fame, the composer was appointed honorary cultural attache to the Cuban Embassy here in 1943.
On the popular-music front, his Palau Brothers Cuban Orchestra appeared in the early sound picture “Cuban Love Song” (1931), which starred Jimmy Durante, and Hollywood soon embraced him as a composer and arranger. MGM, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. Studios frequently hired him to compose irresistible music for films with a Latin flavor. His title song for the Warner Bros. film “Always in My Heart” (1942), received an Oscar nomination for best song.
After a successful career as a composer and bandleader, Mr. Lecuona left his beloved Cuba for good after Fidel Castro’s revolution, vowing never to return or perform there again until the dictator and Cuban communism were defeated. He died in Tenerife, the Canary Islands, in 1963.
“Maria La O,” Mr. Lecuona’s zarzuela masterpiece, was composed in 1930 and became an immediate hit upon its debut in Havana. With a libretto by Gustavo Sanchez Lagarraga, this light opera had a serious side, dealing with the taboo of interracial marriage in 1830s rural Cuba. In the original, a white plantation owner falls deeply in love with a mulatto woman but is forced to abandon her in order to marry in his own racial and social class.
These “In” Series, performances employ an updated script by bilingual Washington playwright Karen Zacarias and director Tom Mallan that moves the action to the nightclub scene of 1950s Havana and re-imagines Maria (Miss Nino) as a celebrity entertainer. Her lover, Fernando, is now Fred (tenor Peter Burroughs), an American entertainer with plans to bring Maria’s entire act to Hollywood, with Maria playing herself in a new movie. However, starlet Tula Smith (soprano Tammy Roberts), whose rich father plans to bankroll the project, has other ideas about who will star as Maria.
Meanwhile, Maria’s ex-boyfriend, the Cuban Jose Inocente (baritone Harold Ruiz), steams in the background. Although the updated script gives off faint overtones of political correctness, it is on the whole a faithful adaptation of the composer’s original concept for the work.
Zarzuela, like light opera, is different from grand opera and similar to Broadway in that much of its dialogue is spoken and not sung. In addition, many zarzuelas, including this one, are surprisingly short, almost like one-act plays. (This is one reason Placido Domingo, who initially introduced zarzuelas to the Washington Opera, withdrew them after two seasons: not enough bang for the big bucks.)
To fill out its own musical evening, the “In” Series has woven with surprising effectiveness several of Mr. Lecuona’s most popular songs, including “Jungle Drums” and “Siboney,” into the original work. This has the advantage of buttressing the spare narrative while at the same time adding some musical heft to a work that comes up a little short of expectations in this regard.
This production is oddly endearing. Enmeshed in financial difficulties since George Washington University stopped supporting it a couple of seasons back, the “In” Series mounts a bare-bones production of “Maria La O” that is at times somewhat comical in its minimalism.
Multifunctional props are few, including three screens depicting what look like banana plants, three cutout showgirl models, a picnic table filled with plastic utensils, and a see-through makeup table that seems perilously close to collapsing. Yet, once the soloists, the chorus and the dancers take over, Mr. Lecuona’s infectiously rhythmic music moves to the fore, and the lack of lavish sets ceases to be a major issue.
It also helps that the soloists are having fun and know how to sell a good song. Nobody does it better than Miss Nino and Mr. Burroughs. The weight of the show pretty much falls on their shoulders, and they are more than up to the task.
Miss Nino’s powerful, well-articulated voice lends heft and credibility to the role of Maria, a strong-willed woman who is nonetheless unfortunate in love. Miss Nino digs into Mr. Lecuona’s songs with gusto and enthusiasm, faltering only occasionally in her upper figures.
As her opposite, Mr. Burroughs gives a seasoned performance as a reluctant cad, playing Fred as a part-time lover and full-time careerist. Mr. Burroughs’ knife-clean tenor voice combines well with Miss Nino’s more sultry instrument in the aptly named “Gran Duo,” the emotional high point of the evening and a fine piece of music by almost any standard.
In a comic turn, Miss Roberts is highly effective as the ditsy Tula, at once dumb and calculating. Miss Roberts plays Tula as a frothy ingenue with a heart of brass. Her playful mangling of the interpolated “Jungle Drums” adds considerable momentum to the second act.
The bit players also are quite good. Harold Ruiz and Jason Walker were particularly effective in the “Romanza,” while Marvin Scott’s brief but touching solos in “Los Enamorados” were etched with exquisite emotional delicacy. The tiny ensemble, led by the brilliant pianist-arranger-music director Carlos Rodriguez, was first-rate. Unable to field an orchestra, the “In” Series does the next best thing by bringing in a superbly talented pianist to fill in all the sections.
Originally scheduled to wrap up the production yesterday, the “In” Series has added a final matinee tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. If you love Latin semiclassical music, catch it if you can.
WHAT: The “In” Series Ernesto Lecuona’s “Maria La O”
WHEN: Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW
TICKETS: $29. Call 202/237-9834