by Carolyn Val-Schmidt, guest reviewer
Olé to the Center Stage Opera’s Carmen, which was magnifíque! The San Fernando Valley’s Madrid Theatre was packed with enthusiastic audience members for the final production of their 2014-2015 season and the culmination of the 10th year for the diverse and growing company.
Co-artistic director Dylan Thomas directed and stage managed this snappy presentation, placing a 26-member orchestra upstage as a sort of Greek chorus, which left only a shallow downstage area for the cast to use to convey their characters. Although the conductor was behind them when they faced the audience, they could still see him thru the magic of a well-placed monitor facing them from the orchestra pit. Thomas’s unique, visual set concept was to project the image of a bullfight arena onto a scrim covering the back wall of the stage, leading the audience to the opera’s fatal conclusion from its very beginning, providing continuity as well as a canvas for evocative lighting effects. The “color” of Act IV was particularly chilling – all black, white and grey, darkly foreshadowing the death to come.
The stage design was necessarily minimalistic, with the cast moving the props, smoothly altering the appearance of each act. Costumes effectively represented the traditional period and place – Seville, Spain in the 1820’s – and Escamillo’s well-tailored bull-fighting attire was particularly “right-on”!
Maestro Brian Onderdonk conducted a solid orchestra of very fine professionals, with special kudos to the winds. The orchestra’s phrasing, subtle crescendos and sublime pianissimos caused the audience to erupt in applause as he enticed the ensemble to weave the sound into a rich embrace of the singers. An extraordinary crescendo in the second act was a visceral thrill, it so gripped me in the emotion of the music. The orchestra supported the vocalists as if the singers were riding a magnificent stallion or a giant wave; the instrumentalists truly were the “wind beneath their wings”.
Danielle Marcelle Bond tackled the vocal and dramatic aspects of the she-cat Carmencita with a luscious voice that filled the theater, her intense middle voice ringing with the freedom of her technique. Shannon Miller was bright and charming as Frasquita; her buddy, Mercedes, was sung by Trisha Rivera, whose vocal instrument and effortless technique were lovely, alive and compelling. Both were delights as Carmen’s fellow gypsies.
Gustavo Hernandez, in the role of Don Jose, gradually let his voice ring out more and more during his performance as the love-struck and tortured Corporal. Caught in the unresolvable conflict of serving two masters, he evoked a strong man so entangled by circumstances that he could exercise none of his power. At the end of the opera, after stabbing Carmen, Don Jose pulled out a pistol and put it to his head as if to commit suicide… yet he never pulled the trigger — a perfect metaphor.
The Zuniga of bass-baritone Jay Stephenson had a clear, clean, beautiful tone and a compelling stage presence, consistently powerful in his delivery and in his awareness of and reactions to the story unfolding around him. El Dancaïro was sung by Scott Ziemann, a young baritone who has already developed some maturity and a vocal talent worth catching. He fully fleshed out his character and sang in a brilliant tone, secure and resonant. Travis Elconin, with his beautiful soft tenor, was enthusiastic and earnest in his characterization of Remendado, as was Jason Chacon, who sang the role of Morales with authority and confidence at the outset of the show, giving a strong start to the opera.
Hannah Goodman, in her first major role, let her lovely voice spin as she portrayed the simple, yet courageous peasant girl Micaëla, whose love for Don Jose transcended her fear of various kinds of beasts — human and otherwise.
And, ah, the toreador – lanky of body and lusty of voice, Gabriel Manro brought brilliance to this strong character with his wonderful sense of the lyrics and use of diverse tone colors as he played with his words. He reminded me of Tito Gobbi in his use of the voice for effect, not necessarily for beauty; delivering raw tones and primal energy as he stalked the stage like a cat; using the French language as if it were real, not just vowels on a melodic line.
Chorus master Mercedes Juan Musotto successfully prepped the small patrol of soldiers so that they sounded like a whole company. The women’s chorus was alternately sultry and fiery, all the while celebrating their joy of singing. Katya Ivanova and Javier Rebollar performed a seductive gypsy dance for Act 2 that knocked our socks off. The competitive dance team took 1st Place in the 2013 USA Dance National Championship and semi-finaled in the 2014 World Latin Dance Cup, and exemplifies the excellent team CSO has put together, which includes rehearsal pianist Sosi Chifchyan, production manager Amanda Benjamin, and wardrobe assistants Erin Heulitt and Barbara Mazieka.
The production had a few elements which could have been improved: the sung French was missing a great deal of its clarifying consonants; the rifles were often held in such a way that one could see that the singer had not really thought about exactly how much a real rifle might weigh; when the chorus was in the background and conversing (silently), in their enthusiasm to look animated they would all speak at once, which left no one to listen. Alas, for the lost art of listening! These, however, were minor points in a fine presentation of the repertoire favorite.
Bravos to the leaders of this organization, which also includes co-artistic director Shira Renée Thomas, and general director Jerry Brown. May this talented, hardy and authentic troupe continue to carry on in the tradition of the famed 19th century traveling Garcia Family for decades to come!
Photography provided by Kathy Flynn of Wicked Goddess Photography.
Watch for details of Center Stage Opera’s 2015-2016 season, featuring The Best of Broadway 2, Cosí fan tutte, and a truly unique concert experience. The final concert of the Second Annual Center Stage Opera Vocal Competition will be held at 3:00 pm on Saturday, July 25, 2015. For more information on this and other activities of CSO, go to www.centerstageopera.org.
This post has been updated to reflect an error in the company’s web address (www.centerstageopera.org) and a last-minute change in the cast: We originally reported Bryan Dahl in the role of Morales, but as the general director’s comment below reflects, the role was actually played by Jason Chacon. Sincere apologies to CSO and to Mr. Chacon for the errors.