Opera Buffs’ concert ‘Carmen’ is just what LA needs

The Opera Buffs gala on Sunday, August 20 was not only a resounding success, it was a surprisingly intimate performance of an incredibly dramatic work. Located at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, filled to capacity and brimming with excitement, the Opera Buffs organized a concert version of Bizet’s Carmen. This, the first of what one can hope to be an annual event, featured young, local talent mixed with heavy-hitting professionals for an all-round engaging performance.

The main roles were comprised of Opera Buffs’ alumni who are now enjoying successful professional singing careers. The chorus was made up of local singers who are now currently involved with the program. The orchestra, its origin not fully explained, was a smaller-scale version of what is usually required for Carmen, but the ensemble managed to play magnificently despite the youthfulness of the ensemble members. Led by Brent McMunn, a veteran opera coach and conductor, the orchestra played with vibrancy and clarity. The tempi were often quick, which the orchestra handled with ease, though it could be said that the lightness of the sound lacked some of the drama one would expect of a larger ensemble.

Kelley O’Connor in the title role for Opera Buffs’ ‘Carmen’

Stepping out of the modern repertoire she is most known for, Kelley O’Connor tried on the mantle of one of opera’s most iconic roles — the title role in Carmen. O’Connor’s voice was rich and warm and resonated throughout the hall. The upper register suffered a bit from tension or possibly stress from singing too heavily, which was apparent in the very well-known “Habanera”, as it didn’t sound completely comfortable in her voice. On the other hand, the “Card Aria” was well-suited for O’Connor, and she sang it beautifully. As an actress, O’Connor mastered Carmen’s aloofness but she didn’t quite reach the fire that lies behind Carmen’s eyes, a fire that can seem vulgar or even violent. One couldn’t imagine this Carmen engaging in a fight at the cigarette factory or convincing us to join her band of outlaws.

Charles Castronov and Kelley O’Connor in ‘Carmen’

Tenor Charles Castronovo was testing the waters of heavier lyric repertoire with Don José. This is an exquisite voice, and he has powerful acting chops. He sang artfully with full voice and delicately with sublime messa di voce. The “Flower Aria” was one of the highlights of the entire opera, in which Castronovo floated the high B-flat to a pianissimo as Bizet intended, though is often ignored by heavier voices or conductor preference. It was well appreciated in the modest space of Zipper Hall.

Rodney Gilfry stepped up to the challenge of Escamillo, a role known to fatigue singers due to its high baritone tessitura. Gilfry showed no signs of discomfort as he swaggered and strutted during the “Votre Toast”. The upper register was strong and colorful and he made quite the convincing leading man.

Singing the role Micaëla was Alyssa Wills, who was originally cast as understudy but was given the role after Vanessa Vasquez withdrew. Wills is a light lyric soprano, but she held her own musically and charmed the audience. She has a clear and beautiful voice that sounds fitting for higher roles such as Adele or Olympia. Ms. Wills’ portrayal of Micaëla was sweet, but she often looked as though she was asking permission to be onstage. That said, Wills has a bright future and time to grow and develop the commanding presence of a veteran singer.

Other notable performances were that of soprano Oriana Falla singing Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck singing Mercedes. Ms. Falla was a smirking force with a light but rich voice. Ms. Beck is clearly ready to step into high mezzo roles such as Octavian or Cherubino. Tenors Todd Strange and Landon Shaw II were excellent, even flawless, as the dangerous outlaws, though heavy makeup and costumes would be needed to make these Dapper Dans look threatening. Also notable were Ben Lowe as the morally corrupt officer Zuniga, and Bernardo Bermudez as Morales.

Cast members from Opera Buffs’ ‘Carmen’

The Opera Buffs have long made it their goal to offer opportunities via scholarships, rewards, and singing engagements to help showcase young talent, as was the case with the chorus. With only 16 voices and four per part, the chorus was brilliant. Several of the choristers were given the opportunity to cover main roles, which is a luxury not often enjoyed by most major opera choruses.

As champions of the Los Angeles culture scene and dedicated to promoting art and artists in Southern California, we hope that the Opera Buffs gala concert will not be a singular event and that we can expect to see more full-length concert productions of operas for years to come.

Photos by B. Wright, Courtesy of Opera Buffs

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