by Judith Malafronte, Opera News

Regional opera is flourishing in northern New England if PORTopera's sizzling production of Bizet's Carmen (seen on July 29) is indicative. Dona D. Vaughn's traditional staging - earthy, energetic, and loaded with passion and violence - received three performances in Portland, Maine's Merrill Auditorium. Renovations in 1997 turned this 1900-seat theater into a visual and acoustic treasure, and packed audiences welcomed Carmen enthusiastically.

Strong dramatic values and believable relationships characterized this production, with Vaughn drawing powerful performances from the leads and from Judith Quimby Bible's chorus. The variety of ages and physical types in the ensemble lent a refreshing realism to the crowds of soldiers, townspeople, gypsies and smugglers, while the cigarette girls threw themselves at each other, fighting, biting, screaming and slugging with real gusto. Conductor Stephen Lord kept the musical temperature high as well and coaxed his uneven orchestral forces into some beautifully lyric playing.

Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich has all the elements of the Carmen package - movie-star beauty, dancer body and sensational voice - in a combo with "star" stamped all over it. Her Carmen was alluring, moody, free-spirited and temperamental without physical or vocal vulgarity. With Aldrich's full and unforced chest voice, it was a pleasure to hear Carmen's music sung with even and velvety richness throughout the range.

Richard Troxell's Don Jose was slightly taxed vocally, and Lord assisted with fleet and fluid tempos for much of his music, allowing Troxell's affecting timbre and high-level musicianship to come to the fore. This Jose was unusually strong and well defined dramatically, startling Carmen with his genuine love ("La fleur que tu m' avais jetee" was intimate and intense) and returning in Act IV a shell of a man, ominously quiet and eventually explosive. The final duet was terrifyingly violent, a knockdown battle of wills as a nearly insane Jose dragged the writhing and kicking Carmen across the stage by her hair.

As Micaela, Sandra Lopez sang without much finesse until her Act III aria, but the voice is striking, with Puccinian thrust and metal. Franco Pomponi's Escamillo was a preening and greasy showman, all snappy elegance, if a bit thin vocally at the bottom of his range. Jeffrey Wells, in splendid voice, was a delightfully worldly and nonchalant Zuniga.

Workaday sets, from Binghamton, New York's Tri-Cities Opera, were the only indication that this Carmen was not part of a major repertory house.


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