THE BASICS: Buffalo Opera Unlimited presented Bizet’s complete opera CARMEN on Friday, December 3 at 7:30, and will encore on Sunday, December 5 at 2:30 at Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo NY. Open seating tickets available at the Box Office, 716-878-3005 or online here.
Sung in French with English surtitles projected above the stage. Runtime: 3 hours with one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The world premiere of Carmen took place at the Opéra Comique, in Paris, in 1875, but composer Georges Bizet died before he could know that this is arguably the most popular opera ever composed. The story is simple: A young soldier not used to big city ways falls hard for the flirtatious Carmen and is enraged when she moves on to her next conquest.
Act I – Stationed in Seville, Corporal Don José is in love with and betrothed to a peasant girl back home named Micaëla, but when Carmen and the other women in a nearby cigarette factory take a break in the square and flirt with the soldiers, Don José’s indifference irks her and she proceeds to seduce him. She then gets into a fight, he is sent to arrest her, but she promises a rendezvous at Lillas Pastia’s Tavern if he lets her go. He does that and is then himself arrested by Lieutenant Zuniga. Act II – After his jail term, Don José, now obsessed, goes to the rendezvous where things go rapidly downhill, he stabs Zuniga, and joins Carmen and a band of smugglers. Act III – Now in the smuggler’s mountain hideaway, it’s soon apparent to the insanely jealous Don José that Carmen has moved on and is now herself in love with the toreador Escamillo whom he challenges to a fight to the death. This will not end well. Act IV – Outside the bullring, it doesn’t.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:
Jaman E. Dunn is currently the Assistant Conductor to JoAnn Falletta with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and is an operatic bass himself. From the opening notes of the familiar overture, it was clear that there was a new sheriff in town. Dunn got an impressively consistent, high quality sound from the chamber sized orchestra of 13 strings, 8 winds, 2 brass, and 2 percussionists. Intonation, phrasing, dynamics, it was all there for the entire opera. This was one of the best rehearsed BOU orchestras I’ve heard, and all in service of very, very popular tunes.
The role of Carmen is sung by Jessica Ann Best, who has had operatic experience in a number of locales from coast to coast, and that variety of training shows in every way. The character is supposed to be completely confident, and Best is, with the voice, the facial expressions, and every facet of acting that only comes with experience.
Don José, the young corporal, is sung by Jeffrey Thompson with a strong tenor voice. Escamillo, the toreador, is sung by Tyler Mecklenburg who unfortunately was suffering from a cold. At the Met that sort of impediment is announced from the stage prior to the show and it should have been here too. I know Mecklenburg to have a big baritone and he carried on magnificently, only at half volume. The audience deserved to know what a “trouper” he is.
Micaëla, the peasant girlfriend of Don José, is sung and acted magnificently by Yvonne Trobe. How good is she? She just won the Buffalo/Toronto District of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. In some productions, this role is not given its proper due and so, if you’ve got a powerful mezzo singing Carmen, you don’t feel the tug-of-war between the two contrasting women. You do here.
Micaëla, the peasant girlfriend of Don José, is sung and acted magnificently by Yvonne Trobe. How good is she? She just won the Buffalo/Toronto District of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
Equally wonderful were the duets sung by two of Carmen’s gypsy friends, Frasquita, sung by Meghan Attridge, and Mercédès, sung by Jenna Washburn. What fragrant music these two combined voices make. But wait, there’s more. In Act III, in the mountains, while Frasquita and Mercédès innocently tell their fortunes with playing cards, discussing future loves, with their sweet soprano voices, next to them Carmen, with her duskier mezzo voice, is playing her Tarot cards, and all she sees in her love life is death. It’s a small scene, but I’ve never seen it better.
The “bad guys” in the opera are Dancaïre (or Dancairo), a gypsy smuggler sung by Brandon Mecklenburg and Remendado, another gypsy smuggler sung by Tyler Huk (recently seen as “Little Bat” in BOU’s production of Carlisle Floyd’s opera SUSANNAH, broadcast on WNED-PBS last Monday).
Their counterparts are the “good guys” Zuniga, the lieutenant who arrests Don José, sung by Victor Schule, and Morales, a corporal, sung by Stephen Edge.
The technical elements involved David King, BOU’s long-time set designer who came up with a serviceable, if bare bones, set (he was also the set designer for BOU’s opera SUSANNAH, broadcast on WNED-PBS).
Karen Podd is Stage Manager and Costumer, who also deserves praise for beauty on a budget. And, of course, major kudos to Tim Kennedy, Artistic Director, who founded Buffalo Opera Unlimited in 1985, to give local singers opportunities to continue their operatic careers.
Two dancers bring a level of realism to the production – Katrina Bierk and Ryan Hawk – and there is a fifteen member chorus to boot. This is one super production.
Bizet’s CARMEN was the first opera I ever saw, decades ago, in a semi-staged performance by some traveling group, over at Kleinhans Music Hall. I would recommend this opera to anyone who wants to see and hear what opera is all about. If you take someone new, and you or they get the opera bug, note that locally, WNED Classical (94.5 FM or online at wned.org/classical) broadcasts an opera every Saturday afternoon, usually at 1:00. In addition, the Metropolitan Opera “The Met: Live in HD” series beams some of those operas, also live, into local movie houses 8 Saturdays in the season. Visit here for complete details. And, remember, the Buffalo Bills don’t play again until this Monday night, so your afternoon, this Sunday, December 5, at 2:30 should be free for CARMEN.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!