Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 7
 
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
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Music/Theater

Carmen Turns Up the Heat in the Winter With Opera New Jersey, NJSO Production

Nancy Plum

There was a time when the mere raising of the curtain at an opera would elicit applause and ovations from the audience at a set draped in lush fabric and awash with hues of light. Perhaps because of the economy or a natural evolution of set design, the physical environs of theatrical productions have become innovatively austere. The Metropolitan opera demonstrated this new trend in recent productions in which the chorus was placed in a series of “cubbies” rising over the stage while the action took place on the floor. In the current co-production by Opera New Jersey and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, state director Bernard Uzan borrowed from the Met model by placing the chorus (dressed in black) on bleachers a level up from the stage, overlooking the action on the floor. The stage floor had very little furniture for each of the scenes, focusing the audience’s attention on the performers themselves.

This production of Carmen, presented in French with English supertitles, is being toured to several venues in New Jersey, with Sunday afternoon’s performance at the State Theatre in New Brunswick (the opera was performed at McCarter Theatre in Princeton on Friday night). Presenting a full-scale opera on Super Bowl Sunday is always a risk, but those who chose to combine football and opera witnessed a concise and solid production, with some unusual directorial twists.

The orchestra pit in the State Theatre is small, requiring the conductor to walk through the audience to get to the podium, but enabling the audience to get a good view of the instrumentalists’ faces as they played. Conductor Joseph Rescigno opened the opera with a sprightly overture played by the New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra. This was an overture incorporating the “greatest hits” of the opera, and the players kept the tunes moving along. The men’s chorus, singing from the bleachers, solidly opened the vocal portion of the opera. The chorus was replaced onstage in crowd scenes by an ensemble of dancers. In the case of the opening scene of cigarette girls, the dancers seemed costumed as mythological sirens, lithely luring the soldiers off the straight and narrow.

“Carmen” will be performed once more in New Jersey at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center on Friday, February 12 at 8 p.m. For information visit www.opera-nj.org.

The secondary characters of Morales and Micaëla, sung by baritone Steven LaBrie and soprano Caitlin Lynch, respectively, showed that the level of singing was going to be of a very high quality. Mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez stepped into the lead role of Carmen for the ailing Denyse Graves, and it was hard to imagine the production staged for anyone else. Ms. Chávez descended into the scene from the chorus bleachers and took control of the renowned “Habanera” with a clear and well focused voice. In both the “Habanera” and subsequent “Seguidilla,” Ms. Chávez turned up the heat to create one of the racier scenes witnessed in Carmen productions in this area. An agile and athletic singer (with obvious ballet background), Ms. Chávez was comfortable enough in the role to slink around the soldiers and Don José in cat-like form. This type of physicality takes supreme confidence of voice, and Ms. Chávez missed none of the dramatic or musical nuance of the role.

As Don José, one of Carmen’s two romantic foils, tenor Richard Leech covered a wide dramatic range in his portrayal. His mind and physical appearance became impressively more disheveled as the opera went on and Carmen discarded him for more appealing pastures, and one could easily imagine his growing rage as he headed for a final fatal confrontation with Carmen. The directorial twist of Carmen more stabbing herself (fulfilling the prophecy of the cards) than Don José driving the knife into her created somewhat of an anticlimactic ending to the opera, after the two had succeeded so well in creating so much tension during the four acts of the opera.

Carmen discarded Don José for Escamillo the bull-fighter, sung with impressive swarthiness by baritone Luis Ledesma. Mr. Ledesma entered the stage for the “Toreador” scene like Johnny Depp taking over the movie screen, with a suave and debonair style. In his operatic career, Mr. Ledesma has not been afraid of the dark side of opera, and critics have had no trouble characterizing him as “perfectly vile” in some of his roles. In this role, he was clearly out to get Don José and steal his beloved, and had no trouble being as nasty as he had to be to accomplish his mission.

Some of the nicest writing in this opera is for the orchestra, and the New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra demonstrated some very nice solo wind playing, especially in the entr’acte between Acts Two and Three. Solo flute, clarinet and English horn (played by Andrew Adelson) combined well with the harp in this entr’acte in subtly lush writing suitable for any century of music.

The unusual staging of this opera, with the chorus in the “bleacher seats” took some getting used to, especially in scenes where one would have seen them milling in the crowds, but no doubt saved a great deal of trouble and money in costuming, wigs, and directing which made this production eminently easier to tour. The two organizations collaborating was a great cross-over idea, and the three venues selected for this production were very suitable for great opera.

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