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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Opera Review: There's a Riot Goin' On

Downtown Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble occupies Carmen.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A fresh approach to bullfighting at Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's "occupied" Carmen.
Photo amalgamation by the author, who does not endorse bullfighting or pepper spray.
George Bizet's Carmen is often mounted as grand opera, with crowds of milling orange sellers, bandallerias and marching children creating a whirlwind portrait of life in 19th century Seville. This new production by Christopher Fecteau's Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble (part of the company's summer repertory project) takes the opposite approach.

Using the confines of the black-box 13th St. Theater to maximum advantage, director Knud Adams added elements all too familiar to New Yorkers conversant with the Occupy Wall Street protests. Citizens were repeatedly "kettled" and threatened with pepper spray.  Don José (Adam Juran) was a riot control cop with safety vest and ready baton. Carmen (Elizabeth Shoup) was a lithesome leather-jacketed presence with an attitude to match, surrounded by an admiring throng of police, punks and riot grrls.

Dell'Arte's summer Standard Repertoire Project is geared toward helping younger singers move from the conservatory environment into the professional world. This was Ms. Shoup's debut in the complex title role, and she brought a dry, matter-of-fact edge to this familiar character. Although her singing was strongest in the two famous arias in Act I, she compensated with go-to-hell attitude and a refreshing lack of the standard clichés associated with this famous character.

Mr. Juran is a tenor who was originally pigeonholed as a lght baritone and is now making inroads into that higher repertory.  Although he was a last-minute substitution from the second cast, (brought in because of an illness) he used that to his advantage, playing the Don as an asocial outsider. The restoration of his back-story (how he was forced to flee Navarre and join the army after killing a man) helped this sense of alienation. He sang the role with a dark, baritonal color which added to the sense of constant brooding. Mr. Juran was at his best in the "Flower Song." You could hear the instability, a pendulum swing between love and hatred that ultimately ends in death.

As Micaëla, Lauren Onsrud blended beautifully with Mr. Juran in the Act I letter scene. Her Act III aria in the mountain pass (sung under the glare of two flashlights) was another highlight. This is a young voice to watch for. Also impressive, the bluff, genial Escamillo of Elias Notus, who made the obnoxious bullfighter likeable, almost sympathetic. Fine contributions were made in minor roles, particularly John Torres as Morales, Brian Long's Zuñiga (another substitution) and Kate Ross in the spoken role of Lillias Pastia, who gets a gender-change in this production.

Carmen is an opera where ensembles are crucial to the action, and these provided some of the best musical moments of the evening. The cigarette chorus had a rich, seductive quality, the voices blending like fine tobaccos. The smugglers' quintet was crisp, almost Mozartean. The card song was a study in contrasts, with Ms. Shoup's internal monologue played against the frivolities of Mercedes (Jocelyne O'Toole) and Frasquita (Yungee Rhie.).

The final tableau was radically altered, with the bullfighters' parade was nixed in favor of a ballet dancer (Ms. Ross again) representing an avatar of Death. The confrontation outside the bullring was staged as a sort of last-ditch attempt at couples counselling. José brought out folding chairs, and he and Carmen sat down on opposite sides of a cheap Persian rug to hash out their differences. However, the final confrontation and murder detonated with explosive force.

Although budget and time constraints led to the deletion of several popular numbers (the children's "changing of the guard" in Act I; the Act II bassoon march, the grand parade at the opera's climax) the score was played with energy and drive by the 14-piece orchestra under Mr. Fecteau's baton. The sensible decision to use spoken French dialogue (as Bizet intended) brought new depth to these familiar characters, especially as many of the standard cuts were opened up.

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble continues their Standard Repertoire Project with Dialogues des Carmelites, opening Aug. 18. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.