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Second performance of Eaton's 'Carmen' is not to be missed

| Sunday, July 1, 2012, 2:08 a.m.
Kara Cornell in the title role of Opera Theater Summerfest’s “Carmen — the Gypsy.”
Patti Brahim
Patti Brahim
Kara Cornell in the title role of Opera Theater Summerfest’s “Carmen — the Gypsy.” Patti Brahim

Review

Opera directors usually search for new perspectives when staging yet another performance of old masterpieces. Few are as radical or successful as Jonathan Eaton is in his new version of Georges Bizet's “Carmen” called “Carmen – the Gypsy,” which made its debut Saturday at Opera Theater Summerfest.

Eaton sets the story entirely in gypsy taverns, which is closer in spirit to the novella by Prosper Merimee that inspired Bizet's opera, as Jerry Clack observes in excellent program notes on the drama.

“Carmen — the Gypsy” was performed in the Peter J. Kountz Black Box Theater at The Hillman Center for Performing Arts at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel. With every seat in the house within about 20 feet of the edges of the stage in the center, the impact of the drama was visceral in a way it never is in a big opera house.

The score was cut and rearranged to tell the story in so different a setting. Gone, for example, is the long opening scene outside a cigarette factory in Bizet's score. You'll probably want to read the synopsis, no less if you know “Carmen” than if you don't. But the diction of the singers, performing in English rather than the French original, was so clear Saturday night that the story was readily comprehensible by ear alone.

The music was arranged for a small band by Robert Frankenberry, who worked with Eaton in developing the concept and also conducted and played piano in the performance. Frankenberry's re-orchestration is for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, bass, guitar, accordion and piano. No big sonorities or climaxes of the kind Bizet created with orchestra, of course, but the musicians played with sensitivity and energy. Accordian was an inspired choice, one which has connections not only with gypsy and other folk music but also with French music. Henry Doktorski showed again that he is an uncommonly musical accordion player, one who breathes melodies with artistry whether he's playing the tune or accompanying.

The production would be worth seeing for Kara Cornell's portray of Carmen alone, but, in truth, the entire cast was outstanding and obviously well-rehearsed.

Cornell reveled in Carmen's earthiness as well as her personal strength and integrity. Her character may be willing to fool customs guards for the smuggling ring of which she is a part, but Carmen never lies in matter of love. Cornell was an electric presence. She sang Bizet's unforgettable tunes with just the right degree of insinuation and proved to be a good dancer, as well.

The first scene of “Carmen — the Gypsy” is the love duet between Don Jose and a young woman from his home town who has brought him a letter from his mother. It is a sweet moment that was very beautifully sung by Shannon Kessler Dooley as Micaela and James Flora as Don Jose. Both are alumni of the resident artists program of Pittsburgh Opera.

Flora's Don Jose had impressive range, including a strong top but also well-nuanced introspection. He was not just a mama's boy. He showed strength of character along with the impulsiveness of a person desperately in love.

Daniel Teadt was outstanding as Escamillo, the toreador, adjusting his character's bravado to the scale of the setting. He sang with the panaché and solid tone one wants in his big aria, but also had more dramatic dimension than usually encountered in Escamillos.

Among the other excellent singers were Althea Kilgore, who brought distinctive personality and some fine high notes to one of Carmen's friends, Frasquita; and Ryan Scott Lathan, whose singing and acting made more than expected of Zuniga.

Olivia Kissel was the superb dance soloist who portrayed an innkeeper and Fate, adding to the sensuous atmosphere of the production.

“Carmen – The Gypsy” will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Friday and July 12; a version for those 10 and older will be performed at 2 p.m. July 14, both versions at The Hillman Center for the Performing Arts at Shady Side Academy, 423 Fox Chapel Road, Fox Chapel. Admission is $22.50 to $45. Details: 412-326-9687 or http://otsummerfest.org.

Mark Kanny is the classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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