March 20, 2024

Boheme Opera NJ Presents Timeless Bizet Opera

By Nancy Plum

The period from the late-18th to mid-19th centuries saw the premature deaths of many highly-prolific composers. Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Bellini — none lived to see the age of 40, but each composed an astounding body of work which has endured to this day. Not the least in this ill-fated group is French composer Georges Bizet who, felled by a heart attack at the age of 36, was never able to enjoy the success of his immensely popular 1875 opera Carmen. Denounced as immoral at its premiere, Carmen has long since risen above scandal to become one of the most widely-performed operas in the repertory. 

Currently celebrating its 35th anniversary season, Boheme Opera NJ presented Bizet’s fiery opera this past weekend at The College of New Jersey’s Kendall Theater. Led by Artistic Director and Conductor Joseph Pucciatti and directed by Stefanos Koroneos, the performers of Boheme Opera NJ brought the evocative Spanish tale, centered on a soldier torn between morality and the hot-blooded woman he could not resist, to life. Joining the Boheme Opera singers in Friday night’s production (the opera was repeated Sunday afternoon) were 16 members of the Princeton Boychoir and Princeton Girlchoir of the Westrick Music Academy and dancers from the New Jersey-based Alborada Spanish Dance Theatre.

French writer Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen, inspired by a true crime murder case in Spain, focused on a triangle among three larger-than-life characters. The passionate and controlling title character draws men into her web, including the glamorous bullfighter Escamillo and the upright soldier Don José. Boheme Opera’s production set Bizet’s opera in 1940s Spain, as Franco was dominating the country and war was overtaking the world. The overriding color of this production was red, with the bright crimson and black costumes of the Alborada Spanish dancers contrasting with designer Anthony Remer’s period street clothes. Sets were uncomplicated, backlit with stark photos while the singers’ words were projected in supertitles.

Throughout its thousands of performances worldwide, the principal role of Carmen has been sung by soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto singers. Boheme Opera’s choice to cast the role with contralto Alison Bolshoi brought out the seductiveness of the role, and she clearly had no problems with the lower registers of the part. Rather than traditional arias commenting on the drama, Bizet introduced major characters such as Carmen with two-verse songs, as if they were celebrity performers. Bolshoi sang Carmen’s signature “Habanera” with sultriness in a brisk tempo, well backed by a chorus of clearly experienced singers. She presented a towering figure onstage, flirting saucily with the men around her. Bolshoi presented the folk-like “Seguidilla” with a rich vocal tone, enticing Don José to do her bidding with the coyness of what is actually an old Castilian folk song.

Tenor Gregory Turay tried to do the right thing as corporal Don José, but Carmen’s alluring pull was too much for him. Always in control of the role, Turay came to life in the later acts, as the moral conflict with Carmen built to a feverish pitch. His confrontation duet with Escamillo in the third act was vocally strong, and a love scene “canzonetta” with Carmen was especially tender.

Baritone Jason Duika cut a dashing figure as the charismatic toreador Escamillo, vocally well matching Bizet’s rich orchestration. Although listed as a baritone, Duika had the ringing quality of a basso profundo in the lower register of the lively “Toreador” song. As Don José’s young and naïve childhood sweetheart Micaëla, also in love with Don José, soprano Rachael Long was overpowered at times by heavy orchestral playing but displayed a sparkling upper register and clear vocal tone.

Carmen was not just about these principal singers; background characters were important as well. Soprano Alize Francheska Rozsnyai and mezzo-soprano Erin Rosales were entertaining as Carmen’s sidekicks, particularly showing their vocal prowess in the second act. Baritone Dante Doganiero showed great stage presence and vocal strength as the leader of the smugglers, interacting well with both major characters and chorus. Rounding out the effective cast were baritones Zachary Angus as a corporal, Kevin Patrick as platoon captain, and Mathew Tartza as one of the smugglers.

Conductor Pucciatti led a crisp orchestra, with clean brass and an always elegant harp from an alcove above the pit. The singers of the Westrick Music Academy were confident and well trained, with the “leader” of the children in the bullfighter’s march humorously bossy and the chorus in perfect time with the orchestra. The very strong chorus provided a concrete foundation to the drama of the story, whether it was the hero worship of Escamillo or a ferocious catfight led by Carmen at the cigarette factory.

Boheme Opera NJ, the oldest opera arts organization in the state, has long been both a showcase for seasoned performers and a springboard for the next generation of singers. This past weekend’s production of Carmen provided for both in a captivating evening of solid performance.