The one-night performance of Opera Idaho's Carmen at the Morrison Center on Feb. 26 was welcomed by an enthusiastic full house, many of whom were dressed to the nines in glittering gowns and jewels.
It was an evening of mixed emotions as the last hurrah for popular Artistic Director Douglas Nagel, who is leaving Opera Idaho to become the educational outreach director at Opera San Jose in California. Nagel signed on with Opera Idaho in 2002 in a half-time position, dividing his time with Rim Rock Opera in Billings, Mont., where he will continue to serve as artistic director. On behalf of the board of directors, President Caroline Young and Executive Director Julie Kilgrow presented Nagel with a farewell gift before the beginning of the performance.
Nagel has directed and performed in several Idaho productions, staged the world premiere of Alva Henderson's Nosferatu (Dracula) in Boise and developed the Opera's outreach school programs. His mission, he says, has always been to expose more people to opera and involving children is the best way to prove opera isn't just for the high-brow musical minority. The enchanting Children's Chorus of 44 kids in Carmen is an appropriate send-off for this dynamic director.
Nagel's sure hand for directing and emphasizing the drama and passion in Carmen was obvious in his selection of the mezzo-soprano Michelle Berger for the title role. Berger dazzled the audience with her rich, soaring voice and voluptuous performance. The crowd rewarded her with a standing ovation at the curtain call. As Escamillo, the heroic bullfighter who wins Carmen away from her soldier lover, baritone Dennis Jesse was dashing and dynamic, entering with a swirl of a crimson cape and brilliantly singing the famous Toreador song.
Tenor Brian Stinar was a handsome and intense Don Jose, the once honorable soldier who gives up everything to follow his beloved Carmen and her smuggler band into the mountains. Stinar's excellent voice was at its best in his lyrical duet with Michaela "Ma mere, je la vois," but in other arias he lacked projection. Micaela was beautifully sung by Cassandra Norville, and her sweet and innocent portrayal demonstrated why she was the doomed choice of Don Jose's mother for her son.
A cameo appearance by Boise's Mayor David Bieter, as tavern owner Lillas Pastia, really wowed the audience when they realized who he was. His lively (Basque?) dance was warmly applauded and perhaps we were all fortunate that he did not sing. (No offense intended, Mayor.)
The difficult quintet, about conspiracy, thievery and deception, was given a sensational interpretation by Elizabeth Ashantiva (Frasquita), Tiffany Calas (Mercedes), Stephen Soich (El Dancairo), Joe Dewey (El Remendado) and Berger (Carmen). To enhance Carmen's sexy dance enticing Don Jose to desert his army post and stay with her, Berger dons a set of castanets and proceeds to accompany her song with basic clicks that would make any flamenco dancer blush. But heck, with a voice like hers, who needs castanets?
The 30-piece orchestra, under the baton of Michael Borowitz, gave a final, rich polish to the production. The sets and costumes by Stivanello Costume were very grand and impressive, but there was an odd moment of disorientation when the smugglers march through the Spanish mountain pass with brightly striped Mexican-type serapes over their shoulders. Also, Carmen's elegant fringed and glittering golden gown in the final act seemed more appropriate for an older society matron than for a lusty gypsy girl.
In the drama drenched finale the fearless Carmen cruelly rejects Don Jose, flings his ring away and taunts him with her new love for the toreador. The frenzied jealous lover plunges his dagger into her heart as his own heart breaks and the curtain falls.
In all, Director Nagel's Carmen was a satisfying three and a half hours of stirring drama, flowing Spanish melodies and brilliant voices. Let's hope Opera Idaho will continue to provide such quality productions in its coming season.
Opera Idaho 2005-2006 season
Opera Under the Stars, Met to Broadway; July 29 at the Idaho Botanical Garden; Aug. 26 at the Winery at Eagle Knoll; La Traviata, Oct. 8 at Morrison Center for the Performing Arts; Opera Idaho Sings Christmas; Dec. 3 & matinee Dec. 4 at the Egyptian Theatre
For information: 345-3531; www.operaidaho.org