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Regina Opera presents an electrifying ‘Carmen’

May 27, 2015 By Nino Pantano Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Don Jose (Paolo Buffagni, standing) is captivated by Carmen (Augusta Caso, seated). Photos by Phyllis Olsen
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On the afternoon of Sunday, May 17, the Brooklyn-based Regina Opera Company presented the opera “Carmen” by Georges Bizet (1838-75).   “Carmen” was Bizet’s masterpiece — an opera in four acts, with libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, after the novel by Prosper Merimee.

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Tragically, the composer died at age 37 shortly after its premiere. The first performances of “Carmen” at the Opera Comique were poorly attended.  After Bizet’s death, the opera had stunning successes.

It should be noted that Enrico Caruso was Don José and Geraldine Farrar sang the title role at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on Feb. 2, 1915, with The Metropolitan Opera. It was the 100th performance at BAM by the Met.  Geraldine Farrar was soon to star in the hit silent film “Carmen” directed by Cecil B. De Mille. She changed her interpretation to suit De Mille’s needs and shocked Caruso during a later Met performance. Caruso shoved her back fiercely and threatened to walk out! This made headlines for weeks. They made up and continued to sing together. The Brooklyn performance was pre-Hollywood and went without incident.

The “Carmen” presented by Brooklyn’s great Regina Opera also generated a great deal of excitement. Augusta Caso in the title role proved herself to be both fiery and glamorous. She possesses a silken, vibrant, warm and beguiling mezzo, like a soothing amoretto liquor, extraordinary good looks and fine subtle acting. From the opening bars of the “Habanera,” Don José’s goose was cooked! Caso’s singing of the “Seguidilla” and her sexy use of castanets was a marvel.

Carmen’s “Love Duet” with Escamillo was a beautiful blend and her “confrontation scene” at the finale with the utterly destroyed Don José was hair-raising. Carmen’s fearless defiance, leading to her death at the hands of her distraught and disgraced former lover, was inevitable. Her throwing back Don José’s ring was the final insult. Caso gave a riveting unforgettable performance.

Paolo Buffagni was Don José. Buffagni, who, like Luciano Pavarotti, was born in Modena, Italy, has a Pavarotti-like clarity to his lyrical tenor voice.  Pavarotti himself wisely never sang Don José or sang heavier parts more than a few times. The duet with Micaela, “Parle-Moi de Ma Mère” was a pleasant blend.

The “Flower Song, “La Fleur Que Tu M’avais Jetée” was sung with great passion, and the high note was hit securely. Buffagni’s excellent acting at the finale made his portrayal a sympathetic one.  His forays into the vocal stratosphere assured him of a conquest of sorts, but one worries about such heavy repertory removing some of the luster of his most promising instrument.

Micaela, the country girl who loves Don José, was ravishingly sung by Jessica Sandidge, whose sumptuous and radiant soprano in both her duet with José and her prayerful aria “Je Dis” stole the collective hearts of the audience. It was hard not to be swept away by the giant, almost tsunami-like waves of purity and beauty in her voice and character.

Escamillo the bullfighter was sung by Nathan Matticks, whose soaring and sensual baritone sang the Toreador song (“Votre Toast”) with fearless bravura and braggadocio. Matticks waves a mean cape!  The beauty of his voice was exceptional in the brief love duet that he and Carmen share near the bull ring in the final act.  He was a splendid Escamillo, everything one would want — tall, vain, manly and possessing a robust and powerful voice.

Hector Mori was a powerful Zuniga, the captain.  His penetrating basso was captivating. The sweet-voiced and agile Yoko Yamashita was the memorable gypsy girl Frasquita and Caroline Tye was a sultry, amber-voiced Gypsy Mercedes.  Tate Jorgensen as El Dancairo and Gregory Spock as El Remendado, the two smugglers, rounded out the excellent cast. The ensemble included Melissa Guardiola Bijur as Remendado’s paramour, José Coropuna as “a drunk,” Noelle Currie as Dancairo’s paramour, Thomas Geib as Lillas Pastia, Margaret Potter as Manuelita and the ever-industrious Wayne Olsen as a guide.

Christian-Philippe Consigny and Wendy Chu danced superbly during the prelude, interlude and elsewhere. Consigny did some great leaps, and Chu was lithe and sensual. The children, Nomi Barkan, Shelly Barkan and Isabela Decker, were adorable and professional. The chorus’ singing throughout was lusty and thrilling, especially in the smugglers’ ensemble in Act Two.

Principal Stage Director Linda Lehr gave us a “Carmen” ablaze with color, sensuality and a dollop of androgyny and led us on the fixed path in the universe that is “Carmen.” Linda Lehr’s set design; especially the pierced bloody bull that dominated the final act, was unforgettable.

The brilliant “card scene” said it all. The costumes by Julia Cornely were eye-catching; Carmen’s red-and-black outfit, the soldier’s uniforms and the smuggler attire were ablaze with the hot sun and balmy nights of Seville, Spain.

The lighting by Tyler Learned was magical — every mood beautifully shaded, from the card scene to the Plaza del Toro. The supertitles by Linda Cantoni were a directory to newcomers.

Last, the superb conductor Maestro Alejandro Guzman and the Regina Orchestra played with verve, assurance and grandeur.  Plaudits to all 35 splendid musicians. The overture, prelude and processions were marvelous, with kudos to concertmaster Yelena Savranskaya, principal violist Alexandra Honigsberg, Richard Paratley on the flute, Michael Sirotta and Mariana Ramirez on percussion and Kathryn Sloat on the harp.

It was a thrill to see Marie Cantoni — founder of this wonderful company — in the audience. A big OLÉ as the Regina Opera closes its 45th season. Thank you, Francine Garber and all who made this brilliant “Carmen” possible.


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