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Staged opera returns to the Lyric with 'Carmen'

Valentine’s Day 2010 just might come to be viewed as the beginning of the return of the Baltimore Opera Company.

No, it won’t be called that – reclaiming the name of an organization that was liquidated last year probably wouldn’t be too cool, marketing-wise. It will be known as the Lyric Opera of Baltimore, but it will resemble in many ways the defunct company. If you were at the

packed Lyric Opera House Sunday afternoon, you could easily have imagined that the new enterprise was already well-established.

Let’s face it. Baltimore loves its past. If someone could revive Hutzler’s or Hausner’s or other faded gems and make them just like they were years ago, an awful lot of folks would be thrilled. Same for Baltimore Opera; if it could somehow just materialize again (and honor all the worthless tickets people got stuck with when it folded), you know it would have a ready audience. The opera regulars want to be back in the Lyric, with a full season of good-quality productions that bear a local stamp.

For all of the ventures that have sprung up aimed at filling the void left by Baltimore Opera, nothing is likely to have as much appeal around here as something that looks, sounds and feels like the old company and is even housed in the old venue. That’s one big reason why, I think, there was such a packed house Sunday for “Carmen.” (Spotted in the audience: Michael Harrison, former general director of Baltimore Opera. This must have been a very bittersweet occasion for him.)

Never mind that this was an Opera New Jersey production, with the New Jersey Symphony in the pit. It was presented by the Lyric; it featured the former Baltimore Opera Chorus (which, curiously, was nowhere to be seen at the end, and didn’t get a bow); the stage director was Bernard Uzan, who worked with Baltimore Opera in the past; volunteers from the former company were on the scene. The whole back-to-the-future thing was impossible to miss.

The Lyric wants to see opera restored to the space, and with former Baltimore Opera staffer Jim Harp on staff as "director of opera and educational activities," chances look good that

some sort of substantial enterprise will take root there, especially after renovations to the theater. Harp’s charisma and dedication will serve the enterprise well, and his core idea of building collaborations with existing companies makes financial and logistical logic. If he can keep the Baltimore connections, too, as in the case of the chorus for this “Carmen,” he’s got an obvious selling point; local pride is not be sneezed at.

(Personally, I think forging a bond with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which used to play in the pit for Baltimore Opera way back when and is in the market for new revenue outlets, is something worth pursuing by any new Lyric-based company. I know this would be tough on the former opera orchestra, which had become a reliable asset over the past decade, but I don’t see how everything from the BOC days could come back anytime soon. And having the BSO on board could change the dynamics and the possibilities in several positive ways.)

Needless to say, one performance on a Sunday afternoon of such a popular work as “Carmen” hardly means that a full-fledged grand opera company at the Lyric is a done deal. But, like I said, the sense of a big step being taken toward that goal was evident all over the theater.

This was, on balance, a pretty decent “Carmen.” Uzan's concept for this iconic work places all the action within a bullring-like area; the chorus is confined to the arena seats. The first time I encountered his approach years ago in a production at Florida Grand Opera, I wasn’t entirely sold on it; I wasn’t entirely sold on the similar version he devised for Opera New Jersey, either. But the essentials of the drama came through strongly enough, even without the extra atmosphere of scenery changes and animated crowd scenes. And the use of choreography, by Peggy Hickey, to fill out the action proved mostly effective. (The exception came in the symbolic dance during the final Entr’acte, when a disheveled Don Jose wandered disruptively into the ballet corps; it wasn’t meant to be funny, of course, but it looked dangerously close to an “I Love Lucy” episode when Lucy did much the same thing one night at the Tropicana.)

The production’s originally announced star attraction, mezzo Denyce Graves, canceled a few weeks ago for health reasons. Stepping in was Kirstin Chavez, sounding like stellar material herself, with a ripe, evenly produced tone; lots of dynamic phrasing (even at rather slow tempos for her arias); and acting that, while not without its clichéd sensual poses, had a natural, involving flair. Richard Leech, as Don Jose, kept mostly to one volume, but poured on the passion persuasively. Luis Ledesma needed a little more vocal heft and tone coloring as Escamillo, but delivered the goods; he did expressive, nuanced work in his duet with Chavez in Act 4. Caitlin Lynch, as Micaela, was dressed much too Rebecca of Sunnybrook Granja, but the soprano sang radiantly, sculpting phrases with as much technical finesse as communicative richness.

The supporting cast proved respectable. The former Baltimore Opera choristers, billed as the Lyric Opera of Baltimore Chorus, produced a zesty, cohesive sound and neatly carried out the minimal action required of them (this included standing up to point at Don Jose a couple of times – not one of Uzan’s most inspired touches). The New Jersey Symphony played with care and style. Conductor Joseph Rescigno didn’t always keep everyone together tightly, but he brought a good deal of intensity, as well as poetry, to the score.

It sure will be interesting to see how things develop at the Lyric from here.


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