• Carmen at Piedmont Opera: the Micaëla show!

    , Opéra Comique in four acts, sung in French
    Music by Georges Bizet
    Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
    Premiered on March 3, 1875, at the Opéra-Comique in Paris

    Piedmont Opera - October 26, 28, and 30, 2012 - tickets still available for the October 30 show, at www.piedmontopera.org

    Venue: The Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts - Winston-Salem, NC (directions are available on the above-mentioned website)

    Orchestra: Winston-Salem Symphony, conducted by James Allbritten
    Piedmont Opera Chorus
    The Winston-Salem Youth Chorus, Barbara Beattie, chorus master
    Dancers provided by Winston-Salem Festival Ballet

    Stage Director - Steve LaCosse
    Lighting Designer - Norman Coates
    Wig and Make-up designer - Martha Ruskai
    Costume Coordinator - Kathryn R. Grillo
    Choreographer - Gary Taylor
    Sets - provided by North Carolina Opera

    The cast, in order of appearance (* indicates Piedmont Opera debut)

    Moralès - David Weigel*
    Micaëla - Jodi Burns
    Don José - Jason Wickson*
    Zuniga - Jason McKinney
    Carmen - Mabel Ledo*
    Frasquita - Catherine Park
    Mercédès - Kate Farrar
    Escamillo - Michael Redding
    Dancaïro - Ted Federle
    Remendado - Jesse Darden*
    Lilas Pastia - Gerry Gunzenhauser

    Production pictures for this article - courtesy of Piedmont Opera, credit Steve Davis


    I have a soft spot for Piedmont Opera. Who doesn't? It's our small opera company that always looks big. Every time I talk about the company with singers, they mention how amazing this modestly sized regional opera company is, and how they can produce outstanding opera with their limited resources. Winston-Salem, a city that is one of the components of the Triad metropolitan area in North Carolina, is also relatively small, but it possesses a peculiar cultural environment. The presence in town of our partners UNC School of the Arts and the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute, together with the consistently excellent Winston-Salem Symphony, provides Piedmont Opera with fertile grounds to tap when they need operatic talent, and this is seen in all aspects of their productions, from costumes to wigs to scenery, not to forget the fabulous chorus and the exquisite singers in comprimario roles.

    The result is often exhilarating, and this current Carmen production is no exception. I know, we've seen and heard Carmen multiple times. But there is something to be said for a well-sung, played, and directed Carmen. One doesn't tire of it, when it is done like this. So, rather than being jaded, I found myself smiling, tapping the floor with my feet in the rhythm of the music, and enjoying several small surprises of this staging.

    It is nice to see two regional companies in North Carolina collaborating - and while Piedmont Opera always presents beautiful sets, this time they were borrowed from NC Opera in Raleigh, and were the same ones I saw a couple of seasons back, when NC Opera staged the same opera. So, it is difficult for me not to compare the two productions. I don't want to foster rivalries - and as far as I know, there aren't any; opera professionals in North Carolina seem to respect and appreciate their colleagues from the other companies in the state - but I must say that Piedmont Opera put together the stronger show (and this shouldn't be read as criticism of NC Opera, which is still evolving after the merger that originated it two years ago and is under new leadership, and constantly improving - next time they stage Carmen, it should be better than last time).

    So, what assets made this production stronger than the one in Raleigh? I see three essential differences. Let's talk about them, one by one.

    One, stage direction. Steve LaCosse is a very skillful director. Likely working in tandem with choreographer Gary Taylor, he was able to introduce some very clever solutions in several scenes. The use of the available stage space was excellent, with the chorus and supernumeraries moving smoothly in and out and engaging in some great acting. Examples are numerous: the street fight between the factory girls, the tavern scenes, the Toreador scene, the knife fight in the mountains, the processional in front of the bullfighting arena... Sometimes they used tap dancing, Flamenco-style dancing... little happenings made it all interesting, like Carmen suddenly stuffing a peeled orange in Zuniga's mouth, or some of the fighting factory girls vandalizing a flower stand and throwing stuff all over the place, or Carmen throwing a pack of cards on the ground... In summary, the visual recreation of a Spanish village with its colorful characters was extremely successful and lively, with a number of surprising touches that entirely avoided the sense of having seen it all, when we attend still another Carmen performance. My only nitpicking criticism is that the youth chorus was a bit static in the first act - I like my street urchins a bit more hyper.

    Photo Credit Steve Davis

    Two, the chorus. Oh boy, is the Piedmont Opera Chorus good!!! This is arguably one of the biggest downsides of attending performances by regional opera companies. Maintaining a good chorus in small markets is not easy, and is one of the reasons why houses like the Metropolitan Opera crush the competition. Often people don't pay enough attention to the chorus, which sort of works in a quasi-subliminal way: you watch a performance by a major opera house with a well-trained chorus and love it, and you watch a regional company's performance and even if you don't pinpoint what it is, something seems to be missing: what is missing is a great chorus! Not a problem in Winston-Salem! This chorus is simply sublime, and it added so much to this Carmen staging! Most likely, Piedomont Opera's ability to put together such a great chorus has to do with the vocal faculty at the UNC School of the Arts. Whatever the reason, they are excellent, and the kids aren't any worse! Often in Carmen, which like you all know uses a good deal of youth chorus especially in Act I, we see some cute but amateurish youngsters. Not so in Winston-Salem, again. These kids can sing!

    Three, the secondary and comprimario roles. Again, Piedmont Opera is able to get lots of local talent, given the numerous voice students in town. Therefore, their productions are characterized by homogeneously good singing, and we don't get to cringe when someone with a small part comes up and is a disaster.

    These three main differences between Piedmont Opera and a "regular" regional opera company are not their only assets - they're just the most striking ones since this level of quality for these elements is unusual in regional opera.

    In this show, we got very beautiful costumes, as elaborate and lavish as you can get, and even the make-up department shined, for example, with some smugglers showing impressive facial scars. Lighting was also close to perfection.

    I find that in North Carolina we are blessed with good orchestras and conductors, so I'm not using these aspects to give this show an edge - Maestro Meena and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, as well as Maestro Myers and the Orchestra of the NC Opera certainly hold their own - but today's conducting by Maestro Allbritten and the musicianship of the Winston-Salem Symphony have certainly added to the pleasure. The orchestra was particularly brilliant in the scenes with local Spanish color in the score, such as the explosion of sounds in the bullfighting processional of the fourth act.

    So, here we have a company that is strong in all production and musical aspects; everything clicks like a Swiss clock, and the singers / actors are supported by competent people in all capacities.

    Then, we just need to add great singers. And today, we certainly saw one. You've guessed, since I entitled my review "the Micaëla show." Jodi Burns blew me away with her singing. I've seen many Carmens, but I've rarely seen such a good Micaëla. Her artistry in this part starts with the fact that she has the physique du rôle, and looks angelical. Then, she is a good actress who easily demonstrates shyness in act I, and pathos and resolve in Act III. Finally, her voice is amazing. It is very well modulated and it holds the pitch in all sides of her register. It is also extremely powerful, and she could be heard loud and clear everywhere in the theater. Her articulation is clear and crystalline. This young woman is a local product, given that she was a student of the UNC School of the Arts / Fletcher Institute - under the guidance of our dear friend Dr. Marilyn Taylor - where she sang Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore, Rose in Street Scene, and the title role in Maria Stuarda. She was recently a semi-finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. The winner of the Southeast Regional, she was the only singer from our region to advance to the semi-finals. After appearing with Piedmont Opera in Le Nozze di Figaro, in H.M.S. Pinafore, and as Zerlina in Don Giovanni, she is currently with the Princeton Festival, where she appeared as Anna Trulove in The Rake's Progress, and Lauretta in Gianni Schichi. This is a young singer to be watched!

    I was pleased with how knowledgeable the Winston-Salem public is, because the volume of applause matched perfectly my opinion of the various singers. Jodi Burns got by far the biggest ovation from the audience. Oh, and I must say, the audience in Winston-Salem applauds at the right moments and never jumps in when it's not right; always a good sign in terms of a well-educated public.

    Second best in my opinion was Michael Redding as Escamillo. Another graduate of North Carolina School of the Arts, he went to Indiana University for his Master, and his career is developing quite nicely, with roles in several regional opera companies in the United States (Seattle, Sarasota, New Orleans, Opera Carolina) and some international exposure, at the Wexford Festival in Ireland (Escamillo, and the hunger and gamekeeper in Rusalka) and an extensive European tour with the New York Harlem Production's Porgy and Bess. I'm a bit demanding with my Escamillos, and I thought that Mr. Redding was a very fine one, with assertive acting and well projected voice that possesses a beautiful timbre. He is also a dashing young man with a beautiful smile.

    Well, it's unusual to highlight Micaëla and Escamillo rather than Carmen and Don José. But I did feel that these two singers were the stars of the night. However, don't read me wrong; Carmen and Don José weren't bad either - just, weren't as surprising as these two, maybe because I wasn't expecting the fireworks to come from the relatively less important roles of Carmen's principal quartet.

    Photo Credit Steve Davis

    Mabel Ledo is a beautiful woman who looks convincing as the sultry gypsy. She acted well the role, choosing a portrayal that highlighted the character's mocking and debauched ways - Ms. Ledo would laugh contemptuously at men in various moments - rather than the more pathetic side that is sometimes presented by her colleagues (which is fine; this is not a criticism, just an observation). Her mezzo voice is warm, rich, and expressive. I only fault her for diction. I had trouble understanding her French. She is Cuban-American, and has also had her international debut, playing Maddalena in Rigoletto for the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, as well as several roles in Spain.

    Jason Wickson was a very fine Don José. Acting is definitely not his forte, but his voice is powerful and beautiful. He hails from Indiana University and was an apprentice at Santa Fe Opera. He seems to be the most experienced singer of the above quartet, with an extensive repertory and credits in numerous regional opera companies in the United States (too numerous to list).

    Jason McKinney's Zuniga was not only well sung, but also well acted, with some funny moments. This baritone has lots of charisma and stage presence. Kate Farrar as Mercédès and Catherine Park as Frasquita were both attractive ladies who delivered competently their parts. The Dancaïro and Remendado pair was also good (Ted Federle, Jesse Darden), once more underlining Piedmont Opera's ability to cast good singers in small parts - which is also valid for a good Moralès in David Weigel.

    The sets were simple, almost minimalistic, yet tasteful and efficient. Basically two or three sets of stairs and elevated planes on the left side of the stage provide the necessary spacial volumes for some dramatic entrances (such as Escamillo's) and the rest of the stage is naked except for some props (tables, chairs), with a changing background: a stylized village house in Act I, heavy curtains for the tavern scene in Act II, rocky walls for the mountain scene in Act III, and some open arcs for the bullfighting plaza in Act IV. The most beautiful scenery is that of act IV, with some interesting panels and spikes.

    Photo Credit Steve Davis

    Overall, it was a very satisfactory production. As you have noticed, there were only rare aspects that didn't entirely please me - Mr. Wickson's acting, Ms. Ledo's diction, a staging detail here and there - but live theater is never perfect. As far as Carmen goes, this was a mighty good one, with a spectacular Micaëla, an excellent Escamillo, great comprimario singers, phenomenal chorus (I should have said "The Micaëla AND chorus show"), solid stage direction, and beautiful orchestral playing and conducting.

    One laments the fact that he house wasn't sold out. If such a popular opera this well staged and sung can't fill the house, we're in trouble. Well, I hope outreach efforts will continue. There is still time for the local Opera Lively readers who live at driving distance to Winston-Salem to catch up and attend the Tuesday show. Believe me, it's worth the drive!


    Don't miss our complete series of articles on Carmen, written exactly to support this Piedmont Opera production. They are very informative and interesting. Click [here] to read them.


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    This article was originally published in forum thread: Carmen at Piedmont Opera: the Micaëla show! started by Almaviva View original post

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