CARMEN (in English translation) Rose Hall, Jazz At Lincoln Center

If you were under the impression that the term “Opéra Comique” meant a “comic opera”, you might be literally right, but in truth, the joke would be on you. What does this really mean? Opéra Comique is a genre of French opera that first developed in the 18th century. The 19th century saw its full flowering. Its main feature, and the one that has blurred the very definition of opera, is spoken dialogue interspersed with arias, choruses and instrumental interludes. Sometimes this included unrelated popular songs. Sometimes the stories were mildly humorous, sometimes (and increasingly in the 19th century) they were quite the opposite. In Paris, the genre gave its name to a theater specializing in this type of entertainment and which still exists today.

George Bizet’s 1875 opera “Carmen” is a classic example of comic opera. However, it is absolutely not a comedy. In fact, he has some precious moments of comic relief. It is truly a tragedy. But because of the dialogue interspersed with arias, it qualifies as a comic opera. The use of dialogue in this opera is gradually abandoned, replaced by sung recitatives. This moved “Carmen” into the category of grand opera and the version most often heard today. Ted Sperling has been Music Director of MasterVoices (originally Robert Shaw’s Collegiate Chorale) since 2013. While standard repertoire is at the heart of MasterVoices programs, Maestro Sperling has also presented rarely heard choral and lyrical works. At first glance, “Carmen” doesn’t seem to fit the bill because “rarely heard”. Maestro Sperling had another idea, however. A good singable English translation (from the French original) has been around since 1981, created by famed lyricist Sheldon Harnick for the Houston Grand Opera. Why not interpret “Carmen” in this English translation with the dialogue of the comic opera? With judicious cuts (there were many) and good semi-staging, accompanied by exceptional soloists and of course the wonderful Orchestra of St. Luke’s, they were going to be able to present a new look at this war horse of all war horse operas.

The translation was, for the most part, fluent and, as mentioned, singable. The text underlay (how the words fit into the music) was a little tricky simply because the original language, French, doesn’t work like English. Sometimes it was a bit forced. However, singing and speaking the entire piece in English appealed to younger viewers and may eventually inspire them to see the full version of the opera (in French) at a later time.

Carmen herself, played by Ginger Costa-Jackson, gave this performance the power and dynamism it needed. Ms. Costa-Jackson walked, slid, prowled, strutted and walked around the stage as if she belonged to her, which she indeed did. Carmen is the anti-heroine par excellence. Mrs. Costa-Jackson has grown into a creature of fierce independence, fearless in the face of death. She looked like a strangely beautiful drug addict. Luckily, even though she’s not the standard soprano ingenue part, Bizet gave the mezzo-soprano character Carmen the most memorable and beautiful music with which to express herself. Mrs. Costa-Jackson’s “Habañera” was unforgettable. Ms. Costa-Jackson handled Carmen’s extraordinarily wide range of tunes with ease. Her magnetic presence, rarely offstage, held the audience’s attention throughout the show. There were audible gasps at his disappearance, demonstrating how engaged the audience was.

Her opposite personality, Micaela, was sung by soprano Mikaela Bennett. This character is usually depicted as an unsophisticated, sweet, and gentle peasant girl (but with a beautiful voice and equally beautiful music to sing). This Micaela was anything but sweet and simple. She was much more fiery and confident while retaining Micaela’s quiet elegance and grace. Ms. Bennett’s portrayal added an extra dimension to the story.

Don José, Carmen’s momentary love interest and Micaela’s putative fiancé was delightfully sung by Terrence Chin-Loy. Her inner life, radically affected by Carmen, became her deeply emotional outer life. His obsession with Carmen completely overwhelmed him. The character transformation was fascinating.

The MasterVoices choir was deployed around the three levels of seating surrounding the stage. It became a set for the bullfighting arena and it was a sound decision sonically. The diction and phrasing of the chorus was pretty much perfect, as you would expect from this band! Although many choruses were cut, enough remained to understand that the chorus was a character in its own right. Maestro Sperling’s precise conducting and perfectly precise tempos brought the opera inexorably to its terrifying conclusion.

There are two more MasterVoices concerts this season. March 23, 2023 will see rarely performed performances sacred service by Ernest Bloch and Kurt Weill Kiddush, as well as the world premiere of a work by an Israeli composer. This concert will take place at the historic Central Synagogue at 7:30 p.m.

The final offering of the year will take place at Carnegie Hall on May 3, 2023. The exuberant satire of Gilbert and Sullivan “Iolanthe” will be performed with the help of some of the best voice talent in the world of Broadway as well as the marvelous orchestra of St. Luke’s.

For more information about MasterVoices, visit mastervoices.org or call 646-202-9623. They are also found on all social networks.

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