Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 26
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
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LIFE IN THE CIGARETTE FACTORY: Beautiful Carmen (Jessie Raven, center) beautifully sings an aria from the opera by Bizet in the Princeton Festival's opening performance of this summer's season.

Princeton Festival Opens With Fiery Performance of Operatic Favorite

Nancy Plum

The summer Princeton Festival is off and running for 2007, with expanded offerings of opera, chamber music and musical theater, all centered on the theme of “The Sounds of Spain.” Saturday night’s opening performance of Georges Bizet’s Carmen(presented in French with English supertitles) showed a commitment to solid musical performance, with a cast demonstrating that singers nationwide will come sing for this company.

Jessie Raven’s portrayal of the title character was powerful in voice and character. Taller than most of the men onstage, Ms. Raven presented a Carmen who didn’t need anything from anybody, and could flatten just about anyone in her path. Her rich mezzo voice easily filled the hall as she held court with co-workers from the tobacco factory and the men who seemed to have no other jobs than to pursue the women. Carmen’s manipulative behavior would probably be fodder for afternoon talk shows today, but on the 19th century stage for which this opera was composed, this siren was no doubt the talk of the town. Ms. Raven was especially vocally rich and enticing in the “Segeduille” which set up the action of the second act.

Todd Geer’s Don José was slightly more on the scruffy side than suave and debonair, but was a good contrast to Escamillo and Zuniga, both played with slyness and cunning. Mr. Geer vocally demonstrated his different relationships with Carmen and Micaëla, a peasant girl whom he considered marrying. Mr. Geer sang with a light lyric tenor quality with MicaÎla (sung by Christina Pier), especially in a smooth duet in Act I. However, when Carmen appeared on the scene, Don José’s demeanor and vocal style changed to reflect his unbridled passion for her.

Carmen will be repeated at McCarter's Matthews Theater on Friday June 29th at 8 p.m. and Sunday, July 1 at 2 p.m. Ticket information can be obtained by calling 800-595-4849.

Don José’s addiction to Carmen was matched only by that of Escamillo, sung by baritone Zeffin Quinn Hollis. Mr. Hollis was very smooth in character and voice, presenting the hallmark “Toreador” aria with polished confidence. The fourth key player in the opera, Micaëla, was sung by Ms. Pier with richness and finesse. Ms. Pier’s Micaëla was a solid character, and not the delicate waif one might see in other productions. Her third act aria was especially poignant, emphasizing the conflict among the four characters.

The minor roles of the opera were also expertly sung, indicating the depth of the cast. El Dancaïro and El Remendado, two smugglers sung by Charles Schneider and Gregory Mercer, respectively, were portrayed with high energy and solid vocal technique. Carmen’s fellow gypsies, Frasquita and Mercedes, sung by Sara Pardo and Ezgi Kutlu, were also performed with personality and sparkle. These four singers joined Ms. Raven for a second act quintet which, being one of the few ensemble pieces in the opera, is often a true test of the cast’s ability to work vocally together. This cast passed this test with flying colors, as well as solidly presenting the full scenes with soloists and chorus. All singers also handled the French dialog with finesse, moving the text so efficiently that a separate soap opera among the characters seemed to be created within the spoken words.

The chorus of gypsies and soldiers (later doubling as smugglers) was well-trained and precise, and the cast members at the very back of the stage were fully engaged in the action, a credit to director Steven LaCosse’s control of the storyline. A large children’s chorus prepared by Dawn Golding was also well trained and engaging (especially impressive with the French language), and was unabashedly encouraged throughout the performance by the numerous parents in the audience.

Eduardo Sicango’s set design made use of every inch of the McCarter stage, as well as the imaginary sky above, with brown, beige and yellow dominating the outdoor scenes, and a brighter set for the fourth act scene at the bullfight. Marie Miller’s costumes were similarly dominated by earth tones for the outdoor scenes and deep reds, turquoise, and purple outfitting the cast for the opening second act party.

Conductor Richard Tang Yuk had all elements of the opera well in hand, including effectively leading an orchestra which provided very sensitive and clean accompaniment. In the opening overture, the brisk tempo was well accented with a musical French flavor in the instrumental “Toreador” song. Wind solos in the entr’acte to Act III were especially impressive, and percussionist Josh Holland kept the gypsy element clean and exact.

The Princeton Festival has a full plate of ambitious activities this summer, using a variety of venues around town. From all appearances, the Festival seems to have built its level of activities wisely, securing solid audiences as it goes along.

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