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Tuesday July 29th 2014

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A Grand, Gypsy Drama

By Jessica Forbes

Would you like to experience a little splendor in the form of an operatic love triangle this January? If so, you’re in luck. For the first time since 2006, the Pensacola Opera will bring the tale of “Carmen” to the Saenger Theatre, complete with all of the on-stage romance, betrayal and associated drama that has captivated audiences for over a century.

“It is truly one of the operatic masterpieces requiring great singing, acting, a large cast, chorus, dancers, et cetera. It is grand opera at its best,” said Kyle Marrero, Artistic Director of the Pensacola Opera.

Though the local company has staged several productions of “Carmen” since its establishment, the Pensacola Opera has sourced talent far and wide to open their 31st season with a freshly designed performance of one of the most popular operas in history.

“It will be a new production with set design by G. Alan Rusnak, New Orleans Opera and costume design by Glenn Avery Breed,” Marrero stated. “This is a testament to the artistic growth and achievement of this company to produce new productions.”

Three of the principal artists and the production’s stage director are making their debuts with Pensacola Opera. Among those is mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock, in the title role of Carmen. “I had the pleasure to direct Audrey in Mobile’s production of “Madama Butterfly” a few years ago and knew ‘Carmen’ was one of her specialties,” Marrero said. “The stars and her schedule aligned this season to bring her to Pensacola.”

Marrero has also previously worked with tenor Chad Shelton, who will play male lead, Don José. Marrero has known Shelton for over a decade and previously directed him in “La Traviata” in Nevada.

“Both Chad and Audrey have enjoyed international careers and will bring their vocal prowess and dramatic energy to this production,” Marrero stated. “Not to mention they are both good looking!”

Adam Cioffari debuts with the Pensacola Opera as well, in the part of Zuniga, a military officer. Cioffari, a bass-baritone, has performed throughout the U.S. and Europe, and spent last season with Staatstheater Stuttgart.

Timing was also right for stage director Dean Anthony to work with the Pensacola Opera for the first time. “I knew “Carmen” would be a great fit for his intelligent, creative and passionate interpretative staging,” Marrero said.

These artists, like other opera professionals and enthusiasts, are no strangers to the grandeur of “Carmen,” which in the nearly 139 years since its debut in Paris, has become one of the most beloved and frequently produced operas worldwide.

Set in Seville, Spain, “Carmen” is based on an 1845 novella of the same name. Composer Georges Bizet died only three months after the opera’s premiere in March of 1875, among harsh initial reviews that regarded its depiction of gypsies, soldiers, bullfighters and Carmen herself — a woman who smokes, fights and takes multiple lovers — as distasteful, even immoral.

Within a decade or two, “Carmen” won over audiences and critics alike and continues to do so. Even “Tom and Jerry” paid homage to Bizet’s masterpiece in the 1960s, along with countless television shows, films and commercials that have featured pieces from the score. This means most everyone — even if their exposure to opera is limited to cartoons of yesteryear — will likely recognize a few of the numerous classic compositions, “Toreador Song,” “Habanera” and “Flower Song” among them.

“The music is beautiful, dramatic and difficult from both an orchestral and singing perspective. The singers must pace themselves and have the full range of dynamics,” Marrero said. “The opera is in French, a language not so familiar to our opera chorus and there are huge requirements of the chorus.”

According to Marrero, 50 adult choristers, 16 children choristers from the Pensacola Children’s Chorus and an orchestra of 35 from the Pensacola Symphony are among approximately 130 people involved in the production.

A cast of matadors, maidens and a special appearance by Robert de Varona as the mayor of Seville round out the onstage players, but an army of backstage support is required to handle over 200 costume pieces and large sets for each of the four acts.

“Back stage [there] will be professional wig and makeup artists, costumers, stage management, props, assistant stage management and running crew, not to mention a supertitle operator and front of house personnel,” said Marrero. “[There are] Lots of challenges, but the reward is great.”
“Carmen” is the first of two “mezzo-soprano ‘tour de force’ roles” that anchor the productions of Pensacola Opera’s 2014 season, and Marrero said the staff does expect the performances to sell out. The second and final production of 2014, Rossini’s “Cinderella,” will be staged in March, a more comedic female-centric performance to balance out the drama and tragedy of Bizet’s “Carmen.”

THE PENSACOLA OPERA PRESENTS “CARMEN”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19
WHERE: Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox
OST: Current availability and prices vary between Friday and Sunday performances. Visit the website or call the Pensacola Opera for more information.
DETAILS: pensacolaopera.com or 433-6737