Central City Opera (CCO) is offering two operatic mainstays in their historic 1878 opera house this summer, Bizet’s Carmen (July 8–Aug. 6) and Mozart’s Così fan tutte (July 15–Aug. 4).
Carmen and Così are joined on the Central City season by limited performances of three short operas presented in smaller venues in Central City (July 26–Aug. 4): The Burning Fiery Furnace by Benjamin Britten, The Cabildo by Amy Beach, and Gallantry by Douglas Moore. Though little known, these works are an important part of CCO’s long-term goal.
“We’re doing this to build new audiences,” Pat Pearce, CCO’s artistic director, says. “Come up and see one of these one-acts! You’re out in an hour, and it’s in English.”
After several years of trying different plans to reach new audiences — musical comedies performed in Denver, taking shows on the road — Pearce and CCO have settled on the plan of two mainstage productions, plus two or three short works, all in Central City.
So far it seems to be working. “They all sell out when we do them,” Pearce says of the one-act operas. “We went to different places, but we decided that part of our identity is the experience of being [in Central City]. Making that experience as good as we can is where we focused the last couple of years.”
This year’s one-acts offer three very different experiences. The Burning Fiery Furnace, based on the biblical story of King Nebuchadnezzar and three Israelites who are rescued by an angel, completes Central City’s survey of Britten’s three church parables. Tenor Billy Bruley, who made a powerful impression in Prodigal Son two years ago, returns to take the leading role.
Beach’s Cabildo, written in 1932, is an operatic Pirates of the Caribbean before the fact. It is set in New Orleans during the war of 1812 and features the pirate Jean Lafitte. “The music is absolutely gorgeous,” Pearce says. “The reason it’s never done is there’s no published score. We had to get permission from the Beach family [to create] a score.”
Gallantry is by Douglas Moore, composer of CCO’s signature work, The Ballad of Baby Doe. A rollicking comedy, Gallantry is “a crazy little comedy about soap operas,” Pearce says. “It’s tons of fun!”
The two mainstage productions appear to be worlds apart. Carmen is a gritty story about a decent man destroyed by his fatal passion for an untamed Gypsy, Così fan tutte an artificial semi-comedy about two pairs of lovers. But beneath the surface, both works explore the same emotions: love, jealousy, anger.
Carmen returns to Central City with the same set that was used in 2011, but a new cast and director. Former Central City apprentice and Met auditions winner Emily Pulley will make her role debut as Carmen. Michael Mayes, who created a sensation in the title role of Dead Man Walking in 2014, will be Escamillo, and Adriano Graziani will make his first CCO appearance as Don José.
Carmen is not a hard sell, which is why Central City has scheduled more than a dozen performances. It is filled with gorgeous and familiar music. It tells a believable story of a “nice boy” fascinated by a dangerous woman. And it has one of the most dramatic endings in all of opera, with Don José and Carmen facing death while the offstage crowd celebrates Escamillo’s triumph in the bullring.
Other than gorgeous music, Così has none of those advantages. The story is scarcely believable: two pair of lovers are convinced of each others’ perfection. In response to a bet, the boys dress up as “Albanians” and, unrecognized, manage to seduce each others’ fiancées.
The cast features CCO debutantes Hailey Clark, Megan Marino, Matthew Plenk and David Adam Moore. Tamara Gura returns as Dorabella, and Central City veteran Patrick Carfizzi returns as Don Alfonso.
The ridiculous plot is a potent framework for the powerful emotions of Mozart’s music. “Mozart humanizes these characters,” music director John Baril says. “The things these young people are feeling are universal. The music, [and] what the characters are going through will seem serious.”
The key to understanding the opera, Pearce and Baril believe, is in its subtitle, “The School for Lovers.” In other words, Don Alfonso, the cynical “philosopher” who manipulates the story, is teaching the lovers to be realistic about one another. To emphasize that point, CCO’s production is placed in a boarding school, making it clear just how young and inexperienced the lovers are.
But as always the music is key. And Così, the last of Mozart’s great operas with librettist Lorenzo daPonte, has some of the composer’s greatest music. As Baril says, “The music is so perfect that if I do what it asks of me, I don’t have to do anything other than that.”
On the Bill: Central City Opera Summer 2017. Central City Opera House, 124 Eureka St., Central City, 303-292-6700, centralcityopera.org/events/2017-summer-festival-events-home