Carmen POPs up in Highland Park

Nowadays, the word “pop-up” probably doesn’t refer to things toasted.  It can be a small shop opening suddenly to offer goods to the neighborhood for a short time.  It might be a spectacular children’s book or a 3D work of art like you’ve never seen before.  But in our neck of the woods, it may also be a “flash production” created by Pacific Opera Project, who have made use of the retail trend to describe a new approach to presenting an art form that is usually a more extensive process.  Built and rehearsed in a matter of days instead of weeks, “POP-ups” are an adrenaline rush, played in a packed house laid out like a table-centric cabaret club, with the cost for a table for four, including nibbles and wine, just $100.  The results have been impressive: Carmen is POP’s third such project, following La Bohème and Barber of Seville, and all three have sold out, expanded and sold out again.  Even before “curtain”, we have a hit.

This presentation of Bizet’s Carmen was put together in eight days flat, with mostly local talent, but a couple of the principals flown in from elsewhere.  As usual, attention to detail, a contemporary sensibility and a general sassiness make the experience fun and engaging, from director Josh Shaw‘s splendid red suit as he starts the evening’s announcements (and he’s getting good at this – the audience is in the palm of his hands), to the silent film-style show credits, to the delightfully irreverent supertitles:  “There’s nothing to be afraid of, baby doll…”

As we’ve come to expect, the quality of music is high:  music director Stephen Karr accompanies the whole show from the piano, negotiating the wicked orchestral reduction with considerable skill.  The chorus shows very good ensemble, and sounds at least twice the group’s actual size, showing off the surprisingly good acoustics at the Ebell Club. There are a lot of people milling about a fairly small stage, making this a challenging show to execute, but Shaw’s deft handling of traffic and juggling of multiple points of focus are impressive.

Nora Graham-Smith, in the title role, is a magnetic actress with a better grasp of this character than most.  Her voice has a darkness that doesn’t quite seem her own, but the instrument is alluring.  Adam Cromer, as Don José, has a powerful voice that is very sure in the part, equally engaging when he’s chasing Carmen as in his duets with Micaela, played by Aubrey Scarr.  Scarr’s strong voice is one to watch: her sweet, youthful sparkle is captivating, and a layered portrayal shows that while Micaela may seem an earnest, simple-minded girl, she actually possesses great depth and an inner strength lacking in the other characters.

Babatunde Akinboboye as Escamillo, with cast members, in Pacific Opera Project's 2014 'Carmen'.  Photo by Martha Benedict
Babatunde Akinboboye (Escamillo) captivates the ladies of the chorus.

As a stylish Escamillo, Babatunde Akinboboye proved once again that he is one of the finest basses in the area, a pleasure to see and hear.

One of the things that sets POP apart is the real effort to cast every role well, making the performances of some of the smaller roles major highlights:  as Zuniga, for instance, Nicholas LaGesse left us wanting more of his exceptional voice, with strong acting that showed equal parts bravado and self-flagellation when Escamillo steals the spotlight. Bass Matthew Ian Welch has a fine turn as the budding lothario Morales, with a big voice that sounds better each time we hear it.

Matthew Ian Welch, Nicole Fernandes, Meagan Martin and cast members in Pacific Opera Project's 2014 'Carmen'.  Photo by Martha Benedict.
Matthew Ian Welch (Morales) vies for the attention of Nicole Fernandes (Frasquita) and Mercedes (Meagan Martin).

The quartet of Frasquita (Nicole Fernandes), Mercedes (Meagan Martin), El Remendado (Robert Norman) and Dancairo (Michael Bannett) were a stunning ensemble, and just as memorable separately.  Fernandes’ ringing soprano voice is pleasant and extremely flexible, well-matched with Martin’s liquid mezzo.  These two guys are a great team, too:  Norman’s comedic skills have grown a great deal, with impeccable timing to match an equally admirable tenor to match Bannett’s pleasing baritone.

There is something about a POP production that reminds me of joys of a DVD with bonus features — the movie itself might be great, but the extras make it even better.  In this case, audience participation was a fun addition:  at the top of Act 2, two men were selected from the crowd and led to a table on the side stage, where they became part of the scene at Lillas Pastia’s tavern.  One of the guests really got into it, turning on his best background acting skills, and their enjoyment increased ours.  Professional dancers did a sensational tango interlude, and even the smart use of supertitles for tongue-in-cheek intermission announcements are all touches that make a big difference in the whole experience, and indicate an exceptional level of thoughtfulness and planning.  This is one of the reasons POP’s fans are so adoring – they feel part of something special and unique, and there is no doubt their patronage is appreciated.

Once again, POP shines, with ingenuity and flair.  Heads up:  tickets for the final opera of the season, the rarely-performed La Calisto, are already selling very quickly.  Get them while you can, as sold-out crowds are becoming a regular occurrence for what was once an upstart band of visionaries, and is now firmly established as a look to the future of opera.

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