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Central City

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Cognizant of their position as “the richest square mile on earth,” the citizens of Central City, Colorado proudly opened a Grand Opera House in 1878. However, the coming of the railroad to Denver and the depletion of the mines meant that both the city and the opera house fell on hard times. Reopened in 1932, the opera house has been producing a summer season of theatre and opera nearly every year since.

My first visit to Central City coincided with a particularly eclectic and ambitious season of opera: the North American premiere of an obscure Handel opera, AMADIGI DI GAULA (which I unfortunately missed); three one-act operas boasting varying degrees of familiarity, Puccini’s GIANNI SCHICCHI, Poulenc’s BREASTS OF TIRESIAS and Weill’s SEVEN DEADLY SINS; plus the inevitable warhorse, Bizet’s CARMEN.

For CARMEN, Director/Choreographer Daniel Pelzig envisioned a stripped-down, industrial setting in which Carmen could create her amorous mayhem. This  neutral backdrop allowed the emotions to take center stage. Pelzig’s best ideas brought a visceral energy to the familiar, like portraying Michaela as  less passive than usual. At one point she even hauled off and gave Jose a well-deserved slap. Other concepts seem less fully formed. The prelude to the First Act found Jose under arrest at a police station, apparently setting up the opera to unfold as a flashback. The Second Act prelude continued in this vein with the music underscoring his arrest for helping Carmen escape justice. But, after that, the concept vanished. The Third and Fourth Act preludes didn't include Jose, nor did the arrest come full circle at the opera's end.

That said, Pelzig offered a clearly focused and impressively physical production. He excels in using the Chorus to create dynamic stage pictures which subtly enhance the story. Another wonderful surprise is to hear CARMEN done in the opera comique style (with spoken dialog) envisioned by Bizet. Most companies outside France perform the opera with unauthorized recitatives composed after Bizet’s death. While this is the best known version of the opera, there is an undeniable authenticity to hearing the dialog spoken.

In truth, a good chunk of the dialog, particularly in the First Act, has been cut, along with some major choral stretches, but these snips suit the lean and mean concept. Though one regrets missing what Pelzig might have done with the bustling chorale at the top of the final act.

As the eponymous heroine, Kirstin Chavez has the richly voluptuous tone and  easy sensuality of a born Carmen. She had no trouble commanding the stage, but her performance was played, for the most part, at one level. She's a good enough actress to find more layers in Carmen's flirtatious bravado. Vocally she delivered the goods, singing with power, passion and style, though with the occasional approximate pitch. (a problem which completely disappeared by the second half) Her Jose, Jonathan Burton, was announced as indisposed, but there was little evidence of illness in his vocal performance. He revealed a clear and unforced tenor sound, backed up by solid musicianship. However, the erotic temperature between the lovers was disappointingly tepid. One couldn't help feeling that this Jose was simply too nice a guy to be led astray by a woman like Carmen. Still both sang the final scene with great energy and admirable commitment.

As previously noted, Michaela was re-conceived as an intelligent woman with a backbone as opposed to the customary simpering innocent. Elizabeth Caballero happily threw herself into this interpretation  while singing with warmth and spirit. Gustavo Ahualli proved a suave and far less stentorian Escamillo than usual. All the soloists displayed commendable French diction in both the dialog and the singing.

As the Director of three disparate one-acts from the first half of the 20th Century, Ken Cazan had his work cut out for him. The pieces were written in three languages, by three distinctive composers, under very different circumstances and all of them demand extensive, but varied, resources. Attempting to produce all three in a major house would strain their means. Accomplishing it in Central City with such positive results is little less than a miracle.

Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCHI is a true ensemble piece as well as his only comedy. To illustrate the story of the lowborn upstart who pits his native cunning against the greed of old money family, Cazan updated the opera from its Medieval origins to the more familiar Florence of the mid 20th Century.

The comedy depends on singers willing to show the uglier side of their nature and this cast was more than happy to disport themselves, warts and all. The opera was ably anchored by Daniel Belcher's winning Schicchi whose generous and beautifully produced baritone effortlessly filled the house. A naturally appealing comedian, Belcher is that rare performer who lights up a stage with every entrance. Noticeably younger and sexier than most Zita's, Peabody Southwell attacked the role with an antic verve which proved infectious while Andrew Harris' Simone matched her step for step as the family patriarch dropping every bit of decorum. As the young lovers in the opera, Norman Reinhardt's acting of Rinuccio proved more impressive than his rather pinched tenor while Joanna Mongiardo's Lauretta easily stopped the show with “O mio babbiono caro.”

For my taste, the frantic slapstick and over-the-top performances seemed occasionally indulgent, but there's no denying that the staging was genuinely funny and delighted its' audience. And if you thought that Puccini and his librettist fashioned the opera with a neat reversal, Southwell and Cazan provided an extra twist at the curtain which I'll long remember.

Kurt Weill's final collaboration with Bertolt Brecht was DIE SIEBEN TODSUNDEN (The Seven Deadly Sins), a genre-defying and savagely funny satire of bourgeois morality. Deliberately schizophrenic, the narrative follows two women Anna 1 (a singer) and Anna 2 (a dancer) as they seek their fortune in the world. Are they sisters, or two aspects of the same person? Anna I's practical mind concocts a plan in which they'll visit seven cities in America, staying a year in each until they achieve their financial goal and can return home to Louisiana to buy a home for their family. And, if at the end, Anna II's spirit is crushed by Anna I's relentless pimping her out, they have achieved the American Dream.

Peabody Southwell sang a richly nuanced and compelling Anna I. Not only does her pliant mezzo easily navigate the opera's vocal demands, but she nimbly changes style to accommodate Weill's eclectic score. Sarah Tallman proved a supple and sympathetic Anna II. The family, written for a Male Quartet with the bass as the mother, was sung with appropriately craven personality by Norman Reinhardt, Phillippe Pierce, Robert Gardner and Andrew Harris.

The typical solution for staging the SINS is to hire singers and a small ballet corps. No doubt money played a part in deciding that Anna II would be the only true dancer, but this choice proved a brilliant solution as it forced the Quartet to portray the men the Annas encountered . While this meant that the choreography would  remain less complex, it also forced the singers to relate to the story in a way they might never realize when standing by and commenting the actions of the dancers.

Like cooking their souffles, producing French comedy is risky. A slight miscalculation in timing or ingredients can spell disaster and your buoyant romp falls flat. The danger only increases when your production is a surreal feminist critique of gender roles in which your protagonist, Therese, wishes her breasts away (they are balloons which conveniently fly off) and takes on the male character of Teresias. Meanwhile her husband dons woman's clothing and discovers a way to give birth. To 40,000 children. Appolinaire wrote LES MAMELLES DE TERISIAS (The Breasts of Terisias) as a reaction to the devastation of WWI. Similarly, Poulenc composed the operatic adaptation after WWII.

After appearing as father and daughter in SCHICCHI, Joanna Mongiardo  and Daniel Blecherreturned in a different familial connection, as Therese/Terisias and her unnamed husband. Freed from the confines of Puccini's sweet Lauretta, Mongiardo blossomed and revealed herself as a powerful stage animal who sang with high flying excitement. Belcher's sympathetic presence brought a comforting sense of believability to his confused husband and Timothy J. McDevitt made the most of his lovesick Gendarme.

Unlike the other one-acts, MAMELLES requires a full chorus. And, if there is a complaint to be made about the production, it is the clumsy blocking for the crowd scenes. Particularly when contrasted with the slick work done in CARMEN.

Cazan and Scenic Designer, Cameron Anderson neatly solved finding a cohesive look for these disparate pieces by realizing that each opera features a home as an important goal. So each set was dominated by the lopsided, partial framework of a house which could be added to or subtracted from, depending on the needs of the individual opera.

As I write this, Central City's current season is only days from closing, but they've announced next summer's season which will include: OKLAHOMA, THE TURN OF THE SCREW and LA BOHEME. Beyond the mainstage operas are a host of  small-scale opera performances and seminars. Not to mention the historic city itself. I can assure you that a trip to Central City is well worth the your time.

For information, visit www.centralcityopera.org or call 302 292-6700.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.