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Opera Theater offers a delightful 'Djamileh'

| Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008

Once again, the imagination and daring of Opera Theater put music lovers in its debt by offering a charming staging of the all-but-forgotten short comic opera "Djamileh" by Georges Bizet.

Opera Theater's artistic director Jonathan Easton, who likes to do stagings in untraditional locations, mounted "Djamileh" on a stack of oriental carpets at Artifacts galleries in the West End. The big showroom at Artifacts was a theater in the round for the opera, with the orchestra up against the back wall. The opulent oriental carpets, furniture and artwork provided a perfect visual context for this opera, seen Saturday night.

"Carmen" is the one operatic masterpiece Bizet wrote before his death at age 35.

But "Djamileh," written three years earlier, has the inimitable charm and clarity of the great French composer. Its major weakness is an abrupt denouement.

The story centers on Djamileh, the consort-of-the-month for the ignoble young nobleman Haroun. The opera takes place on the day Haroun is to pick a new "lover." The tragedy is Djamileh's fallen for him. The other characters are Splendiano, Haroun's steward who has fallen for Djamileh, and Hassan, the slave master/procurer.

Eaton's bold decision to use belly dancing as a continuing motif was fully vindicated in the performance. Olivia Kissel of Zafira dance was the most prominent dancer, but she also taught the chorus the undulating vocabulary to give Haroun a large harem.

Christina Nassif was charismatic in the title role. Her love song to Haroun early in the opera, doomed at the time, was filled with emotion and strength, while her dramatic interactions were always sharply focused.

The opera has a happy ending, when Djamileh disguises herself to sing for Haroun as his next woman of the month, and he realizes he loves her.

Tenor Matt Morgan was superb as the dissolute Haroun, winning no sympathy for his self-absorption. Daniel Teadt was also excellent as Splendiano, a character who must accede to the reality that his desires are not those of the one he loves.

Robert Frankenberry continued his run of excellent local performances as Hassan. He was vibrant dramatically, wearing a wild suit with equally ostentatious makeup and hair style. He also played tambourine in one number.

Conductor Walter Morales held the show together with decisive yet sensitive leadership. The opera was performed in a re-orchestration for wind quintet, cello, bass, piano and synthesizer, which was used for the harp and timpani parts. The instrumentalists were excellent from start to finish.

"Djamileh" was delightful to experience, despite the weak libretto and abrupt conclusion, thanks to Bizet's musical genius and Opera Theater's devoted advocacy.

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