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Prelude to Performance, The Martina Arroyo Foundation

MARTINA ARROYO'S PRELUDE TO PERFORMANCE opened its twelfth season on July 6 at the Kaye Playhouse with an unusual but ultimately satisfying production of Bizet’s Carmen. Director Laura Alley teased out less obvious characterizations that complemented the strengths of the gifted young performers. In the title role, Emily Righter unspooled a sinuous, milky mezzo that shone especially in the vibrant “Seguidilla” and in her mordant reading of the Tarot cards. Cast against type, the elegant, statuesque Righter was more flirtatious than seductive and more impulsive than dangerous. As a result, her infatuation with Don José registered not as the great passion that breaks Carmen’s personal rules, but as an opportunistic communion that comes with an inconvenient price tag. By contrast, the blind, all-consuming ardor of tenor Benjamin Werley’s Don Jose was never in doubt. Werley wielded a gleaming, flexible tenor and had the confidence to let his performance build and deepen. The contrast between his fresh-faced, clean-cut stoicism in Act I and his vulnerable, ragged desperation in the harrowing conclusion was extreme. The couple’s relationship sprang into relief after Werley’s beautifully judged “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée.” Righter allowed herself to be changed by his declaration, as her easy laugh and cheerful teasing gave way to a darker, realer and more deeply flawed persona. 

In some ways, the tragedy of this Carmen was that Don José and Micaëla, those two good-hearted, sweet-tempered souls, were robbed of what surely would have been a long, happy life together. Werley and the lovely soprano Sarah Cooper were so perfectly matched in every way that it was impossible not to root for their union—another unusual aspect of this production. Cooper’s meltingly beautiful soprano shimmered to perfection in “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante,” and she and Werley shared genuine warmth and affection in their Act I duet. Brian Major embraced Escamillo’s love of the spotlight, playing the tavern crowd like a pro. The low notes of the famous “Votre toast” can sometimes disappear even for the most accomplished baritones, but Major never lost the strength of the line. 

Zaikuan Song’s well-anchored bass and commanding presence held the stage as Zuniga, and he and Werley proved refreshingly credible swordsmen. Phillip Bullock was a genial, easygoing Moralès, with an appealingly suave baritone and pristine French diction. As Frasquita and Mercédès, Shana Grossman and Olivia Johnson were given little opportunity to create a relationship with Carmen, but found moments to establish their own friendship, and both sang with attractive color. Dan Ewart and Hector Mir provided fine support as Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado. The chorus was engaged and active throughout, and sang cleanly and with energy. Special kudos belong to the adorable children’s chorus, who marched and sang with enthusiasm. Conductor Daniel Lipton kept the balance well in hand, and one never had to strain to hear the singers, to whom he was very attentive. Joshua Rose’s projections depicted basic changes in locale, with most of the color and flair provided by Charles R. Caine’s richly textured costumes.  —Joanne Sydney Lessner 

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