On August 2nd, Opera Breve brought a fascinating concept to life with their new production of Bizet’s “Carmen.” Stripped of its spoken dialogue and most of its music, this shortened version of the opera found most of its substance through the narration of a fictional psychoanalyst, Dr. Eva Stone. The details presented in the narration helped create an atmosphere in the absence of a set and illuminated the slow degradation of Don José’s sanity. The English narration was necessary since the piece was sung in its original French and there weren’t any English supertitles. This caused some confusion from time to time, but generally, the solution worked well in keeping the story understandable and moving forward.
St. Michael’s Parish Hall theater provided adequate acoustics for the singers and piano. Music Director and performance accompanist Michael Lobaugh brought a highly-educated sensitivity to the piano reduction, showcasing important orchestral lines and phrasing crucial motifs with finesse. His emotionally-charged accompaniment made up for the lack of a full orchestra. Other musical standouts included Melissa Serluco (Carmen) and Bonnie Frauenthal (Michaëla).
The Stand Outs
The leading ladies stole the show, bringing technically sound and genuinely expressive singing to their roles of Carmen and Michaëla. Serluco possessed the weight and timbre of voice needed for the role, complete with ringing high notes, a reliable lower passagio, and gorgeous legato lines in the arias. She played a strong and decidedly manipulative Carmen, standing her ground against all obstacles. Her secondary skills (card reading, castanet playing, and dancing) were practiced and believable, which is no small feat. She promises to bring an excellent Carmen to larger houses in the next few years.
Frauenthal was equally impressive as Michaëla with her rich middle voice and bright high notes. Her passionate rendition of the famous “Je dis” riveted rather than bored the audience (which happens far too often in “Carmen” productions). She brought a wide-eyed innocence and verve to the role, fleshing out the sometimes two-dimensional peasant girl.
Rounding Out the Cast
Michael Celentano brought a lush voice to Don José and Paul Khoury served as a fantastic foil in the role of Escamillo, shining in his duet with Celentano in the second half. Julia Gmeiner, Sidney Dixon, Conrad Schmechel, and John Kim brought comedic relief to the show with their renditions of the wild band of smugglers. Special attention should be made to Julia Gmeiner for her clear, bell-like tone in her upper range. She made good use of this in her performance as Frasquita.
The costumes, designed by Kristine Koury, successfully accented the mood of the opera and provided necessary color in the second half. Carmen’s three costume changes reflected her emotional changes throughout the opera, bringing out another aspect of her character with each shift. The stage directing by Lenora Eve, however, left something to be desired. Much of it was emotionally unmotivated and unclear. Sometimes the stage fighting proved to be distracting from the music and/or emotional arc of the scene. A highlight of the night’s direction was the Card Trio in which the lifestyle of the smugglers came through in accurate detail.
Overall, it was an enjoyable night at the opera, filled with mischief, heartbreak, and passion. The psychoanalysis of Don José reminded the audience that his actions were more akin to a clingy ex with an anger management issue than a jilted lover and that Carmen just wants to live her life for herself and not for the pleasure of others which, on its own, is not an evil quality.
Opera Breve presents “Carmen” thrugh August 5.