AACC's new twist on 'Carmen' carries both risk and reward

Anne Arundel Community College's Opera AACC concludes its five-performance run of Charles Bizet's "Carmen" at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 28, at Robert Kauffman Theater in the Pascal Center for Performing Arts.

One of the world's most popular operas, "Carmen" got a twist in this production with dance movement integrated in a tale "told through a feminist lens," according to the program notes.

It's an approach that may not reflect everyone's conception of how Bizet's masterwork should be presented, but the production was indeed worthwhile.

Douglas Brandt Byerly, founder of Opera AACC, served as artistic director and apparently gave free rein to stage director Megan Morse Jans and production director Courtney Kalbacker.

In her program notes, Kalbacker observes that "Carmen" has often been "simplified to basic good soldier vs. bad gypsy storyline," and she credits Morse Jans with leading the cast through "a journey in which she challenges us to reframe our idea of what opera can be."

In her own notes, Morse Jans says she offered performers "the opportunity to reinterpret their roles, and to make decisions about them that at times were an outright contradiction to their previous experiences."

Admittedly "a dancer directing an opera," Morse Jans says she left the experience deeper into the mystery of Carmen than she was at the start of this production.

The performance began mysteriously as well — with an interpretive dancing Greek chorus appearing during Bizet's stirring "Overture" — smartly delivered by the Opera AACC Orchestra.

Dressed in white Grecian-style costumes, the chorus appeared throughout the performance in a traditional explicating role and to heighten drama in major scenes. Morse Jans served as choreographer for the five-member Opera AACC Corps de Dance, and these interpretations were occasionally illuminating.

One might be confused at viewing the opera heroine Carmen "through a feminist lens." This tough, free-spirited gypsy heroine warns suitors: "If you love me, I will not love you. If I love you, beware!"

Although Carmen enjoys her game of attracting and discarding men, she is not evil, and no longer as shocking as when this cigarette-smoking gypsy first appeared at the opera's March 1875 Paris debut. Carmen continues to beguile contemporary audiences.

Noteworthy aspects of Opera AACC's production include the minimalist set of a bare stage with black velvet backdrop and two hanging white panels in the first act, and additional white silk panels in the second act.

Musically, this "Carmen" offered vigorously dynamic, nuanced interpretation of the score by the Opera AACC Orchestra under Anne Binneweg's authoritative conducting.

Made up of only 15 voices, Opera AACC Chorus sounded much larger under the direction of Patricia McKewen Amato.

Vocally, sopranos and mezzos provided the major excitement. Melissa Wimbush's lovely portrayal of Micaela captured her sweet innocence and unwavering devotion to Don Jose.

Gypsy girl Mercedes was given glowing warmth by Bonnie McNaughton. And as gypsy Frasquita, soprano Belinda Lau displayed a lovely, clear voice conveying heartfelt emotion.

As Carmen, mezzo Catrin Davies fulfills the bright promise of her memorable performances with the Annapolis Chorale's 2013 "Voices of Light" and later "Messiah" at St. Anne's Church.

Davies has studied under the renowned Denyce Graves, and in her beautifully sung portrayal, Davies creates a proud, confident gypsy woman who insists on living on her terms with courage and honesty.

Davies' commanding stage presence and innate elegance, though, seemed to limit her ability to summon a sensuous "Habanera" or "Seguidilla."

This AACC Opera production featured tenor Patrick Cook in the leading role of soldier Don Jose. Cook sang powerfully but with little softening modulation — most noticeable in his delivery of "The Flower Song." In the final confrontational scene, Cook offered his finest acting and singing, but it was a bit late.

As Escamillo, the toreador who is Carmen's final flame, Albert Niedel struts stylishly, though his "Toreador Song" lacked Bizet's required "thunder and bombast."

Contemporary costumes ranged from gray uniforms for the soldiers and traditional gypsy red for Mercedes to warm yellow for Frasquita and subdued costumes for Micaela. Medium green with pink panels or pink accents were chosen costumes for Carmen, who revealed only a hint of vibrant rosy red lining her green gown worn in the final scene.

Costume designer Barbara Morse's pastel costumes seemed a bit incompatible with Carmen's vibrant mystique. Davies' blonde Carmen might have benefited by the addition of a dark wig to lend earthiness and compatibility with deeper scarlet hues essential in Carmen's wardrobe.

With "Carmen" exiting the Arnold campus, we look forward to the next Opera AACC offering. Byerly has announced that James Harp will direct "Don Giovanni" in September — welcome news for local opera lovers.

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