Music in the mountains

Central City Opera presents Carmen and more

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

A fierce and earthy Carmen stalks the stage at the Central City Opera this summer.

Director Daniel’s Pelzig’s production of Bizet’s ever-popular opera, starring mezzo Kirstin Chávez in the title role, opened the CCO’s diverse 2011 season June 25. There are eight more performances through the last day of the season, Aug. 7.

Also underway in Central City is the North American premiere production of Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula, a mythological tale of fantasy and enchantment. This production, conducted by Baroque opera specialist Matthew Halls and directed by Alessandro Talevi, will be performed nine more times through Aug. 4.

Rounding out the summer schedule are three one-act operas. Puccini’s comic romp Gianni Schicchi is presented alongside two rarities, Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins and Poulenc’s satirical Breasts of Tiresias. All three operas opened last weekend and will be heard again on July 30. Additional performances will offer Gianni Schicchi on a double bill alternately with Weill and Poulenc.

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The productions I saw — Carmen and Amadigi — were inventively adapted to Central City’s small stage. One of the most popular operas, deservedly so, Carmen was set in the interior of a warehouse, giving it an a historical, industrial feel. Shifting screens and small additions helped set individual scenes: a desk for the cap tain’s office, a billiard table for the tavern, large crates for the smuggler’s hideaway. Only a cramped and confused changing of the guard in Act I and the crowd scene in Act IV seemed compromised on the small stage.

The female leads in Carmen had the greater experience and were generally superior to the males. Chávez is justly known for her interpretation of the title role, although her mannerisms were crudely sexual rather than smolderingly sensual. With a dark vocal quality well-suited to the role, her singing was especially effective in the seductive seguidilla in Act I and her mocking of Don José in Act II. Elizabeth Caballero was effective in the emotionally limited role of Mica%uFFFDla. She managed her sweet, lyrical voice well, with only an occasional loss of control at the top.

Jon Burton sang ardently as Don José, but the polish and quality of his voice did not match the intensity of his performance. His stage presence was ungraceful and lumpish, especially in his fight with Escamillo and the final scene with Carmen. Gustavo Ahualli sang well but had none of the presence Escamillo should radiate, due in part to being costumed more like a banker than a matador.

The orchestra gave an incisive performance under the direction of Timothy Myers.

Unlike Carmen, Handel’s operas are a hard sell to contemporary audiences. All the action takes place in recitatives, separated by a series of reflective arias expressing a single emotional state. Musically, these works were dominated by the superstars of the time, male castrato singers who had a volume, sustaining power and ability to sing rapid flourishes that natural voices cannot match.

That said, the CCO production of Amadigi is a reasonable realization of the genre. Countertenors Christopher Ainslie and David Trudgen handled the demands of the castrato roles well, although the latter’s part lay awkwardly across the break in his voice. The women in the cast — Kathleen Kim as the sorceress Melissa and Katherine Manley as Oriana — managed their roles ably.

Use of moving shelves, representing a Renaissance cabinet of curiosities, successfully adapted the magical transformations characteristic of Baroque theater to Central City’s small space. Talevi’s direction made effective use of the physical style of staging now fashionable for Baroque opera, as opposed to the costumed concert that was so often seen in the past.

However, the production is seriously marred by the muddied symbolism of the ending, when the pagan magician Orgando appears to step directly out of Raphael’s “Portrait of Pope Julius II,” accompanied by what can only be Jesuit priests who abet book burnings — perhaps the magical books of the evil sorceress? But it remains a mystery why the pope would join with Eros to celebrate the triumph of earthly love.

As with Carmen, the orchestra, now under Halls, was one of the strengths of the production. The addition of a few period instruments (harpsichord, Baroque cello, theorbo) gave the standing ensemble a sound that was effective if not strictly historical.

Finally, the evening of one-acts gives audiences a chance to hear Puccini’s delightful Gianni Schicchi, in company with works that are far more written about than performed. Opera lovers with an interest in history won’t want to miss either Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins or Poulenc’s Breasts of Tiresias.