By Becca DeWan, Portland Phoenix
Sex, drugs (nicotine, anyway), and a rockin’ opera! Carmen and her entourage come to Merrill Auditorium when PORTopera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen goes up July 27, 29, and 31. This lusty, dramatic opera will heat up the stage with Maine-native Kate Aldrich in the title roll.
Portland Opera Repertory Theatre (PORTopera), begun in 1995, is getting back to its roots; its first production was Carmen at Portland Stage Company. The company has expanded a great deal since then, now hiring top names in the business and performing at Portland’s largest venue (excepting the Civic Center). The organization aims eventually to produce two fully-staged operas and one young artist production in the summer. "We will also have a winter presence that will consist of at least one fully staged production at the Merrill Auditorium while establishing an institutional presence in the Northern New England Arts Community," or so states their Web site.
This year’s production, Carmen, is of course a wildly popular opera today, but its premiere received only mediocre reviews. Sadly French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875), died at the tragic age of 36, just three months after Carmen opened, and never saw the success his opera would become.
Carmen is set in Spain, though written and performed in Bizet’s native French (with supertitles at Merrill). The plot, in fine opera fashion, is ill-suited to a brief synopsis. Carmen is a worker at a cigarette factory who catches the eye of Don José. But Carmen soon tires of him and becomes fascinated with Escamillo, a bullfighter. Suffice it to say there is lust, love, revenge, and fighting fit into a four-act drama that takes place in Seville, around 1820.
During the performances, the audience will be focused on the singers, and maybe the top of the maestro’s head. But let me point out the army of people it takes to make a production of this magnitude happen. I prepared the (incredibly talented) children’s chorus, and thus dipped my virgin big toe into the Wonderful World of Opera.
Stephen Lord is the music director of Boston Lyric Opera, and is back with PORTopera for a second year as guest-conductor. Dona Vaughn, director of the opera workshop at Manhattan School of Music, is the artistic and stage director. Along with Cindy Knight (production stage manager) and Kippy Ruddy (general manager), these four — with assistants in tow — create with each rehearsal a summit of creativity, artistry, and musicality. Add in lighting designers, props masters, make-up artists, choreographers, Photographers, and costume designers and you have yourself one hell of a large cast party.
In a recent rehearsal, they were working on Act IV, a festive celebration of a bullfight in Seville. The stage is filled with screaming, jumping children, and jovial adults. Everyone is eagerly anticipating the arrival of Escamillo, the bullfighter. Suddenly, the crowd parts and Escamillo, with Carmen on his arm, glides downstage. The couple is quite a site to behold. Frankly, the two performers ooze sex appeal. And their singing is even more sumptuous.
Franco Pomponi as Escamillo, Richard Troxell as Don José, and Kate Aldrich as Carmen lead the incredible cast. Mezzo-soprano Aldrich grew up in Damariscotta, and studied during high school with David Goulet. There was quite the buzz reported among Mr. Goulet’s students, excited that one of their teacher’s students who "made it big" was coming back to Maine to perform.
Indeed, Aldrich is well on her way to making it big. She recently starred with Placido Domingo (yes, the one and only) in the world premiere of Nicholas and Alexandra in Los Angeles. She sang the role of Amneris in the film of Verdi’s Aida produced by Franco Zeffirelli. Her opera career has taken her to Los Angeles, Palm Beach, Hamburg, and Busetta, Italy.
While she knows Portland well from her childhood, Aldrich is excited about getting to know the city in a new way, as a city alive with music and professional opportunity. As an opera singer you have to be powerful and strong, she says. Many people in the audience who will come to see her will have known her merely as her parents’ child or as a student. Because many people she knows from Maine have yet to hear her as a professional opera singer, Aldrich says, she is excited to be "singing for the home crowd," showing them just what a powerful and strong singer she is.
Regardless of how strong the principal roles are, a show can fall flat with a lack-luster chorus. This production of Carmen has a wonderful chorus. Judith Bible, PORTopera chorus master, has worked many hours with the community members who comprise the adult chorus, especially focusing on the music and their French pronunciation.
PORTopera is Maine’s only professional opera company, and with only one show a year, local singers are always enthusiastic to participate in the production. What an opportunity it is to work with some of the best in the business, both backstage and on stage.
And what an opportunity it is for us opera fans to be presented with a local production of this caliber.