Just as the iconic character of Carmen herself, a haughty gypsy with enough venom to disarm even the most brazen Real Housewife, clutches hold of heartstrings despite the opera’s proletarian focus, this weekend’s production of the famous work promises to pack a punch.
Yes, the setting of the bewitching opera, composed long ago by Georges Bizet, may be the Spartan basement of a church tucked away in Forest Hills. The curtain may squeak. The orchestra, of barely 10, may face low ceilings threatening to throw off acoustics while the chorus, with several members nonprofessionals, strain to match volume.
But, “Carmen,” mounted by the Golden Rose Opera Works, may surprise you. From the first notes of the prelude of Act One, the orchestra, led by Queens College grad Alex Wen, evokes 19th-century Spain with folk melodies, gestures toward military song and surreptitious motifs alluding to Carmen’s wild nature. The musicians are top-notch, with just one player of each part tackling the work of an entire section.
The lead singers assembled by director Helen Van-Tine Golden, once of Manhattan’s Amato Opera Theatre, are on point, filling the space with clear sound.
In creating the opÈra comique, Van-Tine Golden seems to stress dramatic vigor over musical accuracy — which is not to say the singers’ abilities to hit and hold notes evenly don’t stun. Although “Carmen” is one of the most beloved and vastly interpreted operas (they once felt the need to put BeyoncÈ in the show, after all), the emotions expressed by this cast are intriguing.
There are two casts; one performing Saturday and another on Sunday.
Maria Elena Armijo, who plays the title gypsy in the Sunday performance, more than holds up to the heroine’s reputation. Armijo brings layers to Carmen. She’s not a caricature of bitchiness who pouts her lips at the right moments; one can feel there’s deep-seated angst welded by an unfair society under the surface.
Armijo also plays Carmen more cheeky and brassy than dark. She smolders, but in a playful and catlike way, fawning over men she aims to sway whilst still finding time to turn to a fellow female and roll her eyes. This Carmen commands the stage and is fun to watch while leaving smashed hearts in her wake, like a sinister Disney queen fueled by cheap liquor.
Victor Ziccardi, who is the tragic and gullible Don JosÈ, plays forlorn and lovestruck well, crinkling a forehead with earnest struggle while bringing a robust voice to the stage. The chemistry between him and Armijo is amusing — especially when things get darker.
Armijo said following rehearsal that playing the character has taught her a lot, to “go for the things in life.”
But of course, hearts must break. Don JosÈ abandons his childhood love, Micaela, played on different days by sopranos Claire Myers and Kathleen Monson, and Carmen is famously lured like a broken moth to a flame by the flashy toreador of Granada, Escamillo, played by Cole Grissom on Sunday (he splits the role with Clayton Williams). At the dress rehearsal, Grissom stole scenes with a powerful voice and the deliberate swagger of a rock star.
One thing audience members may be confused about or turned off by is the production’s lack of costumes or sets. The cast and chorus will be in formal wear. The opera will be more like a stage reading, with actors occupying chairs against a dark curtain.
Those romanced by the opera’s Seville setting or expecting the rustic charm of extravagant, fabric-rich gypsy costumes, soldier’s uniforms or over-the-top toreador garb will have to rely on the expressive actors to capture Bizet’s world.
Like Carmen herself, the production is unexpected, but brings true passion.