Imagine that your father has just died. You’re a young woman who longs to be married, or at least allowed out of the house. Your mother, a formidable matriarch with a cane she uses to walk, pound the floor in emphasis and occasionally swing in your direction, has declared that all of you, including your four unmarried sisters, ranging in age from 20 to 39, will spend the next eight years in mourning. That’s years, not months or weeks or days.
Forget about pleading your case to Mom. She keeps her own senile 80-year-old mother under lock and key, afraid the neighbors might see her wandering around the yard.
You might as well be dead yourself.
Based on the play “The House of Bernarda Alba” by Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, who finished it in 1936, shortly before he was arrested and executed by a firing squad at the start of the Spanish Civil War, Michael John LaChiusa’s operatic musical “Bernarda Alba” opened Saturday at Theater Latté Da’s Ritz Theater. Featuring a powerful all-women cast, it’s grim, dark and gorgeous.
What you see first is Kate Sutton-Johnson’s stage-filling set. A Spanish mansion hung with tassels and chandeliers, it’s surrounded on three sides by vertical slats that look like prison bars. Alice Frederickson has costumed the cast in long black dresses with lace bodices, tiered flamenco skirts and corsets threaded with red. Add Kelli Foster Warder’s choreography and the whole production is visually arresting.
LaChiusa’s music propels the story with flamenco rhythms and energy: hand-clapping, foot-stomping, thigh-slapping and finger-snapping. The first line of each song (and sometimes other lines as well) ends with a yelp – a quick rise in pitch – that is startling at first, then thrilling. Some of the songs burn with fury; some are beautiful, with layered harmonies and the sweetness of the singers’ voices. Some are filled with longing and desperate hope. And urgency. Music director and keyboardist Jason Hansen leads a small band of musicians on viola, acoustic guitar and mandolin, double bass, and flute, clarinet, and oboe.
Regina Marie Williams is Bernarda, already missing Antonio, the husband who made her feel like a whore. (We learn the reason in the first song, which includes the bitter words “Happy happy family!”) Antonio’s house is now her house, his stables now her stables. Williams is magnificent in the role. Her measured steps as she enters the stage or crosses behind it are terrifying.
Bernarda’s daughters are Angustias (Kate Beahen), the eldest, by Bernarda’s first, unnamed husband; second-eldest Magdalena (Nora Montañez), resigned to her spinster fate; shy Amelia (Britta Ollmann); Martirio, the ugly one (Meghan Kreidler, the opposite of ugly); and Adela (Stephanie Bertumen), the youngest, prettiest and most daring.
Bernarda’s mother, Maria Josepha (Kim Kivens), begs to be free to go to the sea and dreams of having more babies. The servant Poncia (Aimee K. Bryant) has served Bernarda for 30 years and knows her well: her rigidity, her hunger for gossip and power. A young maid (Haley Haupt) is glad Antonio is dead; she was his victim. Sarah Ochs plays the servant Prudencia and other roles, including mute representations of men.
Angustias, who has a fortune of her own, is engaged to be married to the handsome young Pepe el Romano. But she’s not the only sister who loves him, nor is she the only one he loves, or at least pursues. The men of “Bernarda Alba” – dead Antonio, opportunistic Pepe, and men in general – are not an attractive bunch. They cheat, they’re abusive, they spit and curse, “they’re looking for land, oxen, and for a little bitch who will do nothing but feed them.”
And yet, for the women, they’re the only way out. Lorca subtitled his play “A drama of women in the villages of Spain.” Bernarda and her daughters are not alone in Spain, in the world, or even the past. If there’s a message here for today, it’s to +hold on to our freedoms and fight for them. (This is underscored by an excerpt in the program by Azar Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” about the plight of women in Iran.)
From the opening notes, the stage is set for sexual frustration, suspicion, jealousy, betrayal and violence. Happy happy family! Meanwhile, the house moans and creaks and breathes, like a ship at sea (sound design by Kevin Springer), further emphasizing its isolation and the sense that something bad is about to happen.
Expertly directed by Crystal Manich, who led “Così fan Tutte” and “La Serva Padrona” for Mill City Opera in 2019, “Bernarda Alba” is an unstoppable force moving toward a tragic denouement. It’s a strange, shadowy, claustrophobic world in which to spend 90 minutes. It’s also new for Latté Da. (This is the area premiere.) Following “All Is Calm” and preceding “La Bohème,” it may surprise some Latté Da regulars.
If you want a happy ending, look elsewhere. But if you want to be seduced and enthralled, “Bernarda Alba” is for you. FMI and tickets (start at $33). Closes Feb. 16.
P.S. On Monday, Jan. 27, Latté Da will host an episode in its Pin Spot series about “Bernarda Alba.” Series host and curator Max Wojtanowicz will explore the origins, historical context, musical references and legacy of LaChiusa’s musical, with performances by local artists and conversations with experts. Attend if you haven’t seen the show, if you have, or if you’re still deciding. 7 p.m. Free. Tickets here.