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Fringe Festival, Part 3: The Girl Who Waters the Basil

(L to R) Rebecca Ocampo (Irene), Robert Baker (The Prince), and Cory Davis (The Page) in The Girl Who Water the Basil and the Inquisitive Prince, 2009, Capital Fringe Festival (photo by Douglas Boyce)

The Capital Fringe Festival hosted the performance of three operas, the first two of which I reviewed for DCist. The last one was on my schedule to review for DCist, but I had to miss the Sunday performance to cover a different concert for the Post. So, before the trip out to Wolf Trap on Friday for the opening night of their new production of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, I found myself in the sawdust-ridden ruin of the Apothecary at the Trading Post, in the block of warehouses and former store fronts that is Fringe headquarters, for the final performance of The Girl Who Waters the Basil and the Inquisitive Prince. Composer Douglas Boyce, who is an associate professor of music at George Washington University, describes the work as a "pocket opera," for its stripped-down cast and instrumentation and resulting portability. A few discrete musical numbers linked together by dialogue, it seemed to me much more like a musically complex cabaret act on a surrealist fairy tale, an impression reinforced by the noise of patrons at the bar next door.

Librettist Jodi Kanter, who also directed this production, took the story from La niña que riega la albahaca y el príncipe preguntón, Federico García Lorca's dramatic reworking of a popular Spanish folk tale (part of an elaborate puppet show Lorca staged for children, with music arranged by Manuel de Falla). The narrator (a spoken role performed with intentional naïveté and awkwardness by Cory Davis) sells the audience a story about a cobbler's daughter, her basil plant, and the prince who fell in love with her. The three singers each had solo numbers, beginning with Don Gaiferros, the cobbler, sung with authority by veteran baritone James Shaffran. Washington's favorite character tenor, Robert Baker, last seen descending on an imperial pillow in Washington National Opera's Turandot, was suave and smart navigating the multimetric and ambitus-challenging part of the Prince. Although all of the sung parts were performed with the singers following the score at a music stand, soprano Rebecca Ocampo struggled the most with pinning down that wily downbeat, but with considerable flexibility and ease meeting the coloratura demands.

Other Reviews:

Maureen O'Rourke, The Girl Who Waters the Basil (D.C. Theater Scene, July 21)

Llewellyn Hinkes, Hip Shot (Washington City Paper, July 17)
Boyce himself presided over the small and skilled instrumental ensemble -- clarinets by David Jones, percussion by Richard O'Meara, and piano by Molly Orlando Palmiero -- wringing some interesting colors out of the tiny group. Hints of Spanish folk music crept into the score in the lovers' duet, the common 6/8 vs. 3/4 rhythmic pattern of countless folk songs (perhaps Bernstein's I Want to Be in America most famously) morphed into what sounded like 6/8 followed by 7/8 (grouped as 3-2-2) -- Boyce has worthy interests in historical music, too. The libretto had an absurdist bent, a nod to Lorca's puppet plays and Surrealism, with the wittiest textual play in the closing trio, much of which was lost in the maelstrom. One suspects that the libretto and score would likely reward closer study.

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