Monday, October 30, 2006

Syracuse Opera's "Carmen"

Combining familiar faces and new talent on the John H. Mulroy Civic Center stage, the Syracuse Opera opened its 2006-07 season Friday evening with a well-cast “Carmen,” a perennial favorite and mainstay of operatic repertoire.

Bizet’s 1875 masterpiece follows the exploits of Carmen, a free-spirited gypsy who works in a Seville cigarette factory in the early 19th century. One of opera’s most famous femme fatales, Carmen seduces the soldier Don José and falls in love, only to be pursued by Escamillo, a famous bullfighter. Entangled in her own web of seduction, Carmen ultimately dies for her freedom.

In her Syracuse Opera debut, Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah’s Carmen possessed an undeniable electricity. When she arrived onstage, the production got a much-needed jolt of energy. With a warm voice across all registers, wild, curly hair, and exotic-looking features, Nesrallah sounded and looked the part; but her characterization lacked the sultry spiciness Carmen is known for.

This Carmen manifested her power not through feminine sensuality, but by assuming a masculine physicality. At the same time, Nesrallah’s playful, frenetic energy often read more as petulant pre-teen rather than calculating, pleasure-seeking seductress.

Still, mama’s boy Don José, played by Syracuse Opera veteran, tenor Drew Slatton, fell under Carmen’s spell. Initially unimpressive, Slatton’s thin tenor developed into a fuller, richer sound over the course of the opera; as his Don José unraveled, Slatton improved in every aspect of his performance.

Artistic Director Richard McKee’s traditional production started to come together once the company slogged through the sluggish first act. A trio of flamenco dancers, led by Marisa Guzman-Colegrove, helped liven things up at the start of the second act; from there, the show found its energy.

The middle two acts of this four-act opera contain wonderfully written vignettes for quintet or sextet, which were among the opera’s finest moments. Though the full-chorus numbers never gelled in terms of rhythm and unification, the small ensemble scenes showcased well-matched voices and tight harmonic precision without sacrificing dramatic content.

The latter acts also saw impressive performances from the secondary leads, who carried the evening.

As Escamillo, Syracuse baritone Jimi James proved that not all local singers are subpar, contrary to conventional wisdom. James rose to the challenge of performing the opera’s most recognizable tune (“Toreador’s song”) with an assertive, full voice, conveying Escamillo’s swaggering chest-puffery through vocal color instead of physical caricature.

Soprano Donita Volkwijn, in her company debut, gave the evening’s best vocal performance as Micaëla, whose wide-eyed innocence came across not only in Volkwijn’s acting, but also through her full, unblemished tone. Even her shimmering pianissimo reached the back of the auditorium with pinging clarity.

Under the baton of John Mario Di Costanzo, the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra opened the opera with a spirited overture and played with a sensitive ear for balancing the singers throughout.

On loan from Opera Cleveland, the sparse set, awash in ochre hues, set the tone for a lackluster first act. (The costumes’ subdued palette, dominated by the dusty mustard color of the soliders’ uniforms, only dampened the atmosphere further.) Platforms of varying heights provided a versatile landscape for the entire opera, morphing from town square to tavern to mountain hideaway by adding a few façade pieces or tables. Most effective was the second act’s set: gnarled chandeliers hung from the ceiling among textured burlap panels, creating a rustic, old-world dive bar.

But, cobbled together with costumes rented from a Toronto company, the production overall seemed mismatched. McKee’s unimaginative staging was replete with community-theater clichés that should have been left behind in college-level opera workshop class.

And woe unto those who don’t speak French – at Friday’s performance, the supertitles were so sporadic and thin that they might as well not have been there at all. Entire scenes were reduced to just two sentences flashed above the proscenium, or not translated at all – and even with such meager material, the titles still managed to fall out of sync.

While the musical elements were mostly there, the whole production never quite cohered. But with technical and artistic improvements and continued recruitment of remarkable new talent, the Syracuse Opera can reach a level of professionalism consistent with Syracuse’s other arts organizations.

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