Conductor Dunn conducts extraordinary CARMEN opening night for Buffalo Opera Unlimited – Buffalo Rising
THE BASICS: Buffalo Opera Unlimited presented Bizet’s full opera CARMEN on Friday, December 3 at 7:30 a.m., and will perform an encore on Sunday, December 5 at 2:30 p.m. at the Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo NY. Open tickets available at the box office, 716-878-3005 or online here.
Sung in French with English surtitles projected above the stage. Duration: 3 hours with an intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Carmen’s world premiere was at the Opéra Comique, Paris, in 1875, but composer Georges Bizet died before he knew it was arguably the most popular opera ever composed. The story is simple: a young soldier unaccustomed to big cities falls in love with the coquettish Carmen and becomes furious when she goes on his next conquest.
Act I – Stationed in Seville, Corporal Don José is in love and engaged to a returning peasant woman named Micaëla, but when Carmen and the other women from a nearby cigarette factory take a break in the square and flirt with the soldiers, Don José’s indifference annoys him and she begins to seduce him. She then fights, he is sent to arrest her, but she promises a date at Lillas Pastia’s tavern if he lets her go. He does so and is himself subsequently arrested by Lieutenant Zuniga. Act II – After his prison sentence, Don José, now obsessed, goes to the rendezvous where things quickly deteriorate, he stabs Zuniga, and joins Carmen and a gang of smugglers. Act III – Now in the smuggler’s mountain hut, it soon becomes apparent to the incredibly 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. It will not end well. Act IV – Outside the arenas, no.
THE PLAYERS, THE GAME AND THE PRODUCTION:
Jaman E. Dunn is currently JoAnn Falletta’s Assistant Conductor with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and is himself an opera double bass. From the first notes of the familiar opening, it was clear that there was a new sheriff in town. Dunn achieved a high quality sound of impressive consistency from a chamber orchestra consisting of 13 strings, 8 winds, 2 brass and 2 percussionists. Intonation, phrasing, dynamics, everything was there for the whole opera. It was one of the best BOU orchestras I have heard, and it all serves very, very popular tunes.
But opera is above all the singers and the great team that BOU has assembled.
The role of Carmen is sung by Jessica Ann Best, who has had opera experience in a number of venues from coast to coast, and this variety of formations is visible in every way. The character is meant to be completely confident, and Best is, with the voice, facial expressions, and every facet of the game 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 suffered from a cold. At the Met, this kind of obstacle is announced from the stage before the show and it should have been here too. I know Mecklenburg for having a great baritone and he played beautifully, only at half volume. The public deserved to know what “trooper” he is.
Micaëla, the peasant girlfriend of Don José, is beautifully sung and performed by Yvonne Trobe. How good is it? She just won the Buffalo / Toronto District auditions of the Metropolitan Opera National Council. In some productions, this role is not at its fair value and therefore, if you have a powerful mezzo singing Carmen, you do not feel the tug of war between the two contrasting women. You do here.
Micaëla, the peasant girlfriend of Don José, is beautifully sung and performed by Yvonne Trobe. How good is it? She just won the Buffalo / Toronto District auditions of the Metropolitan Opera National Council.
Equally wonderful were the duets sung by two gypsy friends of Carmen, Frasquita, sung by Meghan Attridge, and Mercédès, sung by Jenna Washburn. What fragrant music make these two combined voices. But wait, there is more. In Act III, in the mountains, while Frasquita and Mercédès innocently tell each other their fortune with playing cards, discussing future loves, with their sweet soprano voices, next to them Carmen, with her voice more dark mezzo, playing her tarot cards, and all that she sees in her love life is death. It’s a small scene, but I’ve never seen it better.
The “bad guys” of 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 the opera’s production of BOU SUSANNAH by Carlisle Floyd, aired on WNED-PBS last Monday).
Their counterparts are the “good guys” Zuniga, the lieutenant who stops Don José, sung by Victor Schule, and Morales, a corporal, sung by Stephen Edge.
The technical elements involved David King, the longtime set designer of BOU who came up with a functional, albeit naked, set (he was also the set designer for BOU SUSANNAH’s opera, which airs on WNED-PBS).
Karen Podd is the stage director and costume designer, who also deserves praise for budget beauty. And, of course, a big thumbs up to Tim Kennedy, artistic director, who founded Buffalo Opera Unlimited in 1985, for giving local singers the opportunity to continue their opera careers.
Two dancers bring a level of realism to the production – Katrina Bierk and Ryan Hawk – and there’s a fifteen-member choir to boot. It’s a great production.
Bizet’s CARMEN was the first opera I had ever seen decades ago in a semi-scenic performance by a traveling group at Kleinhans Music Hall. I would recommend this opera to anyone who wants to see and hear what opera is. If you pick up someone new and you or they have the opera virus, note that locally, WNED Classical (94.5 FM or online at wned.org/classical) broadcasts an opera every Saturday after- noon, usually at 1 a.m. Additionally, the Metropolitan Opera’s “The Met: Live in HD” series airs some of these operas, also live, in local theaters on 8 Saturdays of the season. Visit here for full details. And, remember, the Buffalo Bills won’t play again until this Monday night, so your afternoon, this Sunday, December 5, at 2:30 p.m. should be free for CARMEN.
* BUFFALO HERD (Notes on rating system)
A BUFFALO: It means trouble. A terrible play, a very imperfect production, or both. Unless you have a really compelling reason to attend (that is, you are the parent of someone who is attending), give this show a big place.
TWO BULBS: Fair, but no big bumps. Either the production is quite far from the base, or the part itself is problematic. Unless you’re the type of person who just enjoys going to the theater, you might be looking for something else.
THREE buffaloes: I still have my problems, but it’s a hell of a good night at the theater. If you don’t come in with huge expectations, you will probably be satisfied.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre / content is right for you, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb, a rare rating. Comedies that make you laugh, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided this is the kind of show you love, you would be crazy to miss it!