Review: Beyond the Stage does ‘Carmen’

 

December 1, 2012

Saturday evening I joined a crowd of operagoers who were gathered in front of four food trucks on 6th Avenue and New Hampshire in Los Angeles.  No, I hadn’t forgotten to eat dinner; nor was I trying to find something to munch before arriving at the theatre.  I was at the theatre, and the trucks were there at the invitation of Beyond The Stage Productions – one way that the company had chosen to bring some of the gritty “reality” of LA street life into their unconventional presentation of the nomadic gypsy culture of Carmen by Georges Bizet.

The skies had been threatening rain all day and most people were carrying umbrellas, but we were treated to a very fine mist which hardly warranted a defense. It actually heightened my feeling of adventure as I entered Founders Church, our venue for the evening. A great semicircle, the Sanctuary provided an ideal stage area with room for a grand piano and tympani on the left, music stands for singers on the right (concert style) and a large center area where dancers would dramatize the story. The stage set was simple but effective:  sections of “brick” walls, like the sides of a giant building, extended from one side of the stage to the other, concealing the organ and the front of the choir loft. Designed by Josh Shaw, the walls transformed the stage into a modern city street, complete with a red graffiti heart on the center panel.

Just as the audience was getting settled, a commotion began in the center aisle, caused by a homeless woman who came screaming and howling toward the stage, dressed in multiple layers of straggly clothes topped by a wild mane of blondish hair clamped into obedience by a grey-brown knit cap. It took a moment to make out what she was hollering – she seemed to be warning us about the misguided love affair we would soon witness between Carmen and Don Jose. A modern gypsy of the street, the character (dubbed “the Guide”) was a construct by VanNessa Hulme, artistic director, and Carmen Aiello, stage director. The opera had been shortened considerably, by deleting most of the recitatives and some ensemble scenes, so the Guide character was created to piece the story together for the audience. Played by Hulme, she presented her narrative as the observations of a woman who, although crazy in her way, was wise enough to see the human drama clearly and to communicate it. Wearing a body mic, her amplified shrieks and mad ravings punctuated every scene at maximum decibel levels as she roamed the stage and aisles, freely moving from one to the other and interacting with dancers or spectators at will.

The action continued onstage with a hip hop/classical ballet/modern dance intro by a classically trained troupe especially assembled for this production, led by choreographer Josue de la Vega. Melissa Staroszik, in the role of Carmen, was as beautiful and seductive as one could hope for her to be, with long, thick, wavy black hair, a creamy white complexion, dark eyes and red lips, dressed in a revealing blood-red lace camisole leotard and black tights. Three other gorgeous young gypsy women and three handsome gypsy men also appeared in the first ensemble, with identities that later corresponded to the vocal cast members. At each new musical plot point, they came onstage and danced the story in solos, duets and ensembles. Kevin Phan, as Don Jose, moved confidently and passionately in his initial love duet with Carmen; in his violent confrontation with Escamillo, powerfully portrayed by de la Vega; and in the final death scene. Tessa Rae captured the character of Micaela, simpler and less flamboyant than Carmen but truer in her love for Don Jose, and de la Vega gave us a triumphant and unbeatable Escamillo, champion bullfighter. All the dancers were technically skilled and put great heart into their work, with Staroszik, Phan and de la Vega standing out from the group in their characterizations and in the complexity of their dancing.

With trained dancers written into the show, I was eager to see how the gypsy dance in Act II would be choreographed.  It was something of a surprise to find that there was nothing but accompaniment in that spot. Perhaps this was an intentional aspect of the unconventional treatment accorded the opera; nevertheless it seemed a shame to have no dancing in a scene that Bizet had specifically written for it.

Overall, the troupe performed well, following the opera with choreography that coincided with the story development, but the timing of their storytelling was oddly out of sync with the libretto. It was as if they had the basic plot for each scene, but didn’t know exactly when the events should occur. It was a little disconcerting to watch the dancing Carmen deal her death cards while Frasquita and Mercedes sang Melons, Coupons behind heror to see Don Jose stab Carmen to death while their characters were still sparring in the music.

Joey Buhler opened the vocal performances as Morales, officer of dragoons. His ringing baritone filled the house with authority, clear enunciation and beautiful tone quality. Always meticulously prepared, he maintained constant eye contact with the audience, drawing us into the drama from his first note with his interpretation and characterization of Morales. His role was significantly shortened by cuts, so we had only a brief taste of his talents.

Debbie Dey was radiant as Carmen, her warm, rich mezzo giving an earthy power from the bottom-most part of her range to her resonant top notes. Although she stayed behind her music stand in the concert style of the presentation, she poured so much energy into the part that she may as well have been out on the dance floor. There was no holding her back; she delivered the music passionately, obviously savoring every minute of the performance. Her Habanera and Seguidilla were top-notch, full of spirit and sung without restraint. The trio with Frasquita and Mercedes, Les tringles des sistres, was another highlight, as the three vocally danced through a description of their gypsy music and life together.

Micheal Smith sang Don Jose with a clear, bright lyric tenor voice. His opening duet with Micaela, sung by Jaqueline Mahoney, was tender and beautiful. Ms. Mahoney’s voice was silvery and flexible, with a lovely legato and a sweet, consistent tone throughout. Her aria, Je dis que rien ne m’èpouvante, soared with a pure tone, never forced or loud, sung with great musicality and beautiful control.

Babatunde Akinboboye, as Escamillo, swept us all away with his rousing and richly satisfying Toreadoro, giving us excellent intonation and phrasing with a rich, dark tone quality and a warm lyrical sound. An “emerging professional,” Mr. Akinboboye’s performance made him a singer to watch for the future.

Yoav Paskowitz made light work of Zuniga, treating us to his firm and elegant baritone for too short a time – like Morales, most of his character had been excised from the performance. Nevertheless, he filled the hall without the aid of a microphone, as his location all the way downstage left was beyond the reach of the otherwise well-placed mics which very effectively helped to carry most of the other singers’ voices through the house.

Frasquita and Mercedes, sung by Mariana Ramirez and Linda Tavella, brightened the stage whenever they appeared, bringing a welcome light-heartedness and charm to the otherwise intense and dark drama of the opera. Ms. Ramirez sparkled in both her facile coloratura and in her onstage persona, contrasting nicely with Ms. Tavella’s smooth mezzo, which brought a warmer and heavier color to their ensembles while still projecting the youthful exuberance of her gypsy character.

The quintet from Act II, Nous avons en tête d’une affaire, a lightning-fast interplay of interjections between Carmen, Frasquita, Mercedes, El Dancairo (sung by Vincent Robles) and El Remendado (sung by Travis Hancock), is usually a show-stealer, and it came off well in this presentation. Mr. Hancock, the cover for El Remendado, filled in at short notice for an ailing Robert Norman and had his hands full keeping up with the others, who sailed through their parts, but he got through with no major mishaps. Robles tossed off the role of El Dancairo as if he had grown up in the character, his easy baritone resonating even in the fastest moving passages.

The evening offered multiple layers of artistic and musical expression, giving singers, dancers, instrumentalists, conductors, directors, set builders, caterers and even an interpreter for the deaf an opportunity to work on one of the most beloved operas of all time.  Yes, you heard that last one correctly.  She was a most remarkable participant, positioned high in the choir loft opposite the chorus, with a single spotlight bringing her into our view. She personified the drama with hand movements and an extraordinarily expressive face, clarifying the stage action even for those of us who could hear what was going on. She was not listed in the program and did not take a bow at the end of the show, but was onstage for every moment of the production, every bit as much an actor in it as any other performer.  I heard more than one audience member say that she stole the show.

With all these elements – a crazy, homeless woman “guiding” us through the story; dancers; pianists, percussionist and singers all occupying stage space; and the interpreter for the deaf creating her own drama upstage – it was difficult to concentrate on the music and the original storyline. In spite of the excellence of  most of the performers, I found the multiple levels of art vying with each other for attention rather than cooperating to forward the action of the opera. The absence of common timing between the dancers and singers gave me a choice of concentrating on one or the other, but not both, while the abrupt and raucous style of the Guide presented a radical contrast with the elegance of Bizet’s composition. But hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. It will be interesting to see what new spin this company puts on their next project.

Beyond The Stage Productions will continue their season with RENT!in performance March 2, 2013.  For more information, go to their website at http://www.beyondthestageproductions.com .

2 thoughts on “Review: Beyond the Stage does ‘Carmen’”

  1. Coril,
    Thank you so much for coming to the show and for taking the time to write this review. Your insight and expertise are much appreciated. And, thank you for the kind words regarding my Micaela.
    Blessings, Jacque Mahoney

    Reply
  2. Thank you for your detailed review that made us performers see the various aspects of the piece and their interplay from the perspective of an audience.
    C. Maria Schmidt

    Reply

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