‘Carmen’ and the refugees: Celestial Opera’s season finale

by Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt, Review Coordinator

Celestial Opera Company presented Georges Bizet’s Carmen at the Women’s Club of South Pasadena, wrapping up the run of four performances in their longtime home. Hats off to the creative team for optimizing the essential elements of the music and plot into a swift 2 hours and 20 minutes, plus intermission.

Stage director and set designer Maurice Godin layered current events by adding the refugee crisis of an indeterminate country into the story line, showing Carmen and the gypsies try to smuggle refugees (rather than contraband) to safety. While the action was unclear, the idea was thought-provoking.

The first delight of the opera came with the entrance of Micaela, (sung by Chloe Smart), a girl from a nearby village, in search of Don Jose, her childhood sweetheart-turned-soldier. Ms. Smart possessed a gently animated manner, fully vibrant soprano voice, and completely matched vocal and facial expression. Her conversation with the overly eager Morales, (sung by a grounded and convincing Robert DeVaughn), and the other soldiers, who sang with great rhythmic unity, had a lovely lightness to contrast the drama to come.

The second delight was Carmen’s famous “Habañera” seduction, sung by Anna Avetisyan. And seduce us she did: her poise was careless, yet held the attention of all of the soldiers. Her coy smile and bedroom eyes never faltered during the song – or the opera – thereby capturing the essence of the constantly pleasure-seeking Carmen. Hearing this effortlessly resonant and extremely even mezzo-soprano was the divine ingredient to complete the seduction, and it’s no wonder that the flower Carmen threw to a stoic Don Jose bewitched him against his will. Though tending to slow the beat in two arias, Ms. Avetisyan’s tone production in this demanding role was impeccable all the way through the Act IV death scene.

Christopher Anderson-West (Don Jose) demonstrated solid intonation and clarity in his arias “Parle-moi de ma mere” and “La fleur que tu m’avais jetee”, though ease of resonance has yet to be fully developed. This affected balance during the duets. Don Jose’s infatuation with Carmen could have been explored with more sensuality and physicality, while the purer love between him and Micaela was sweetly captured between West and Smart.

Esteban Perez (Escamillo) showed himself to be a conscientious musician, with commanding tone and resonance befitting a bullfighter. Perhaps still growing wings as an actor, it is hopeful that he will play more with the machismo and bravado of Escamillo over time.

One of unique aspects of Carmen as an opera is the prominence of its supportive characters, even though in this production the quartet scenes were diminished greatly. Olivia Berumen (Mercedes) and Anna Kim (Frasquita), were solid sidekicks, especially in the “Melons, coupons” trio; Edward Sayles (Remendado) and Shawn Taylor (Dancairo) were perfect pals; and Yoav Paskowitz (Zuniga) made a great case for Don Jose’s jealousy.

Music Director Timothy Leon and the orchestra fully supported the singers throughout. Masterfully conducting the singers’ cues from the grand piano, it was clear that everyone was well-rehearsed. The women’s ensemble deserves recognition for solidly owning their place on the stage and singing the choruses.

As welcoming as they have been to local arts organizations, the Women’s Club of South Pasadena is a difficult space for staged events. But Celestial truly turned a “lemon” of a space into “lemonade.” There being no pit, the grand piano and small orchestra were situated immediately between the stage and audience, house right. Godin designed a set requiring essentially no changes, allowing the action to play seamlessly on two levels and three areas: on the floor which was down stage right, on a set of stairs at center, and onstage. The only drawback occurred at moments when the audience in the rear could not see the action that took place on the ground.

The opera was sung in French with English supertitles, translated by Godin, in luxuriously large projection, which made understanding the libretto and watching the action extremely enjoyable.

Costumer Cynthia Nitrini Stary achieved a sense of rurality through the women’s costumes. She cleverly achieved distinct looks for Carmen, permutating two base pieces and three or so additional pieces, including a fantastic organza-like skirt worn for the bullfight.

Founder Judith Townsend delivered a rousing curtain speech at intermission, embracing the LBGT community in the wake of the Orlando shooting and promoting the potential of the arts to help people empathize with one another.

It is obvious that Artistic Director/Producer Andrea Fuentes made shrewd decisions that honored the most important elements of opera. The French diction of leads and ensemble alike was unified and well-executed, and renowned opera singer and teacher Carol Neblett is credited as the production’s diction coach. Under Mr. Leon’s baton, the orchestra’s musicality, balance, intonation, and orchestration left nothing for want. It was also observed that multi-camera filming was taking place, and the audience graciously ignored the slight distraction in favor of the benefit that Celestial will have in capturing some truly sublime moments, likely for archives and well-deserved grant-writing.

Celestial has not yet officially announced their next season’s offerings. However, you can visit their website here.

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