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[whitespace] Tenors and Toreadors: Featuring Stephen Plummer and Kathryn Polombo, UCSC's student production of Bizet's 'Carmen' offered solid singing and an appealing staging.

Opera Rising

A UCSC production of Bizet's 'Carmen' closes a season of steadily improving local opera

By Scott MacClelland

WHETHER PROFESSIONAL or amateur, the state of local opera is much improved. During the season just concluded, Bay Shore Lyric Opera established a new benchmark with its Madama Butterfly, while Monterey Opera made welcome headway with its La Traviata. Last weekend (June 1-4) at UC-Santa Cruz, Nicole Paiement conducted a student production of Bizet's Carmen with impressive results.

On this side of the bay, competition has proven its worth in raising the stakes. Paiement is certainly the musical spark plug at UCSC. The Der Torossians of Bay Shore Lyric Opera in Capitola have pursued their goals aggressively. (Lacking deep resources, Karole and Peter Lewis folded their Santa Cruz Bay City Opera following their own Madama Butterfly, last winter.)

While UCSC's Carmen was presented as a student production, a handful of professionals blurred the lines, starting with Paiement herself and stage director Brian Staufenbiel. Tenor Stephen Plummer, a graduate of CSU Northridge, also brings considerable professional experience. And a ringer or two sat in the orchestra. In Saturday's performance at UCSC's Recital Hall, the orchestra established itself handsomely right from the downbeat, giving the acoustically responsive room something to engage and support. Paiement's direction punctuated crisp technique with clear and dependable cues. Staufenbiel extended his staging into the audience, effectively enlarging his champ de manoeuvres.

Not surprisingly, his bête noire would be singers who have no feel for movement, conspicuously Plummer, whose hapless Don Jose floated through the part like a monk on Prozac, passionate about neither love nor Carmen. No wonder she so quickly loses her interest in him. Plummer, however, made a worthy effort vocally, at last raising his own expressive standards with the "Flower Song" and developing some dramatic intensity, if briefly, in the final confrontation.

But this is where Staufenbiel needs to explain himself. After stabbing Carmen, in the final scene, Jose asks to be arrested even though no one else is present. The cops appear only later. What good's a confession when no one hears it? Staufenbiel also needed to rethink the end of Act I, when Carmen escapes jail by shoving the complicit Jose with all the force of a kiss goodbye.

By contrast, Kathryn Polombo gave the title role the most sultry and sensual performance of the cast. Deporting a juicy mezzo-soprano, the recent UCSC graduate moved commandingly and sang lustily. Like Plummer, she was trapped by awkward staging in the final scene in which stage action continually halted between verbal outbursts.

Roma Olvera delivered a sweet, clear soprano to the role of Micaëla, tender, circumspect, but utterly dispassionate in protesting her own feelings of love for Don Jose. Among the principals, Musik-Ayala was vocally the weakest, conveying only a few well placed and supported tones through otherwise poor technique. His "Toreador" song only came together when the chorus joined in.

In fact, the chorus was one of Paiement's trump cards. As an element of the production, it shone both vocally and dramatically, igniting more than one scene where the stage action had otherwise flagged. A children's chorus (directed by Lucik Aprahamian and Vail Keck) also vocalized effectively and reinforced the action.

With varying degrees of skill and effect, others in the cast were Nikolaus Schiffmann as Zuniga, Adam McLearan as Morales, Lauren Rasmussen as Frasquita, Yanira Urguhart as Mercedes, and David Poznanter and Abraham Sabaduquia.

Sets by Kylan Thureoakes and lighting by Sylvie Vray-Ent were coordinated to mutual advantage, especially the latter with those bits that spilled over into the house. Mary Ann Kent and Diane McCorkle deserve praise for their costumes, not least for having to take account of some 70 actor/singers.

Indeed, it was little short of amazing how well the 400-seat auditorium accommodated the scale of this production, if not the surprising success overall of Paiement and Staufenbiel's ambitious undertaking.

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From the June 7-14, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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