To those without much opera knowledge, it sounds like the setup to a highbrow joke: what do you get when you cross Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem” with Shakespeare’s “King Lear?” To fans of Verdi, it’s almost too obvious: he wrote multiple musical adaptations of Shakespeare and obsessed his entire life over an ultimately unfinished Lear libretto Re Lear. IN Series operatic hybrid The Promised End moves beyond this obvious synergy and crafts a novel and harrowing if somewhat uneven synthesis not just of both works, but of the life and legacy of their authors.
Ingvarsson…brings the tremendous stage presence…sheer originality…daring and more than a little offbeat.
A remount of the show’s 2018 premiere of “The Promised End” features DC native Nanna Ingvarsson as Verdi at the end of his life ruminating on Lear’s legend. Then Lear himself appears at various points in his arc. All of this is interwoven with a chorus of eight singers concurrently performing Verdi’s “Requiem.” There’s even a fourth voice at play. Much of Verdi’s ruminations on Lear come directly from renowned Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber’s book, “Shakespeare After All.” It’s a dizzying array of references, asking much of its audience in a clean 80 minutes without intermission.
The intimate size of the Source Theatre and Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s spare but effective set design does counterbalance that complexity somewhat. Taut white threads spread across the set give the impression of space inside a piano and provide extra business for the singer’s blocking. Along with some carefully spaced projections, the effect is of a chaotic dreamscape as they lead Verdi, Lear, and the audience through Verdi’s purgatory and Lear’s mad self-destruction. Maneuvered with care by director Steven Scott Mazzola, they move in and out of Verdi/Lear’s awareness in pantomimed scenes that echo but never fully coalesce around Verdi’s life and the narrative of Lear. Sometimes they act as tormenting spirits to the pair. Other times they appear to directly guide Verdi through his afterlife and Lear through his final act. Their voices (capably managed and accompanied by music director Emily Baltzer) do wonderful justice to “Requiem,” but it’s their ability to maintain them while in consistent and directed motion that deserves extra kudos (it can’t be easy to sing opera while climbing under a piano).
Ingvarsson, for her part, brings the tremendous stage presence needed for figures as titanic as Verdi and Lear. Her performance deftly weaves them together as she enters as Verdi, transitions into Lear then back out again through not much more than the force of her mannerisms. By the final minutes, the boundaries between Verdi and Lear seem to dissolve entirely. Unfortunately, the intimacy of Source’s space works somewhat against her here. Even with only a piano as accompaniment, there’s only so much one speaking voice can do to rise above eight opera singers, and some of her lines end up entirely inaudible. This doesn’t entirely clash with the show’s more frenzied peaks, but it is a shame some of Ingvarsson’s excellent performance was lost against the volume of her similarly stellar co-stars.
As the singers make their final exit, Verdi/Lear sits exhausted at the now-vacated piano center stage. His final lines “one button more, or one button less” are the reported last words of Verdi himself and invoke some of Lear’s last lines “pray you, undo this button.” This production establishes this chain of echoes down the record of hundreds of years of artistic influence, not directly claiming the mantle of Verdi’s “Re Lear” but making something entirely new out of its constituent historical parts.
There are still some barriers to entry here. As IN Series artistic director and original deviser of the piece, Timothy Nelson, notes in his pre-show speech, if you’re not a fan of Verdi or Shakespeare, there’s enough of both of them on display that it might be a long night. For my part, as someone more on the Shakespeare side of that aisle, I did feel Lear got somewhat shortchanged in the final calculus. “The Promised End” is about more than managing the doses of its artistic influences however. The sheer originality on display gives more than enough room for an appeal to skeptics on either side or to agnostics looking for something daring and more than a little offbeat.
Running Time: One hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.
“The Promised End” runs through December 10, 2023 at Source Theater, 1835 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009. For more information and tickets, go online. This production will also run December 15-17, 2023 at Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For more information and tickets, go online.