Review by Nan Lincoln
BAR HARBOR — The Criterion Theatre was created as a movie house and stage for vaudeville and other small live acts. But it truly, and rather unexpectedly, comes into its own when the Bar Harbor Music Festival’s opera rolls into town.
For one glorious night each summer audiences get to hear the grand old theater reverberate like a giant musical instrument, with the extraordinary voices of some of the country’s most talented opera singers.
Last Friday night it happened again when the festival hosted the Papermoon Opera Production Company’s performance of the steamy opera Carmen on the Criterion’s venerable stage where — fun fact — the festival’s founder Francis Fortier’s dad once accompanied Al Jolson on the banjo.
Oh my. Let’s start with Carmen herself, sung with mesmerizing command by mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock. One has to wonder what on earth Babcock would have done with her life if she hadn’t found opera and if Bizet hadn’t written this role for her. She is so perfectly suited for this demanding part, physically and vocally, that it’s hard to imagine her doing anything else but bringing this mercurial seductress to life on stage. Hard to imagine her singing any other role, for that matter. But this is because her acting is as compelling as her singing.
It is probable that before the singer dons her costume each night before a Carmen performance, she is a perfectly amiable woman who wouldn’t dream of stealing your boyfriend. But once she drapes a gypsy shawl over her shoulders and sticks a rose in her dark lustrous curls, watch out!
The purloined boyfriend here, Don Jose, a handsome young soldier, doesn’t stand a chance. As near flawless as Adam Diegel’s tenor is, and as beautifully as he sings Don Jose’s love song, it is the smoldering Carmen we cannot take our eyes off of as she paces angrily about the stage listening impatiently to him talk about his honor to his company and his duty to his dying mother.
Don Jose has just been released from the brig for helping Carmen escape prosecution for a knife fight at the cigarette factory where she works. Actually, the first scene of the opera resembles an episode of “Mad Men” with everyone puffing away on the product. Anyway, Don Jose must return to his barracks or be labeled a deserter. What’s more, he has been told by his jilted girlfriend Micaela (the exquisite Jeninah Burnett) that his mother is ill. But will he make it for roll call? Will he visit his poor old mom? Not a chance unless Carmen wills it. She does not.
Now, here is an example of the thing I find troubling about most opera. When Micaela sings her plaintive aria, urging Don Jose to come home, it is just heart-meltingly gorgeous. Oh, what control Burnett has. She can produce the tiniest, highest, sweetest sound imaginable that will reach the rafters and the back of the balcony, because she packs the power of a hydraulic engine behind it. And when she releases that full power well, Whoa!
But at some point, I made the mistake of looking at the translation crawl above the stage and I had to stifle a giggle the lyrics were so darn corny.
I didn’t have long to dwell on it, though. Right about then the tall, dark and handsome Richard Ollarsaba as the toreador Escamillio came striding in.
Who cares what un-PC things he was probably saying? All the girls on stage got seriously fluttery and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only gray-haired lady in the audience who went a little weak in the knees as his deep, rumbly voice projected so thoroughly throughout the theater it felt as if he were singing right in your ear.
Two other spine-tingling vocal delights were sopranos April Martin and Annie Leonardi singing the roles of seductresses-in-training Frasquita and Mercedes.
These two provided some necessary comic relief when the sexual tension got a bit taut, with their funny little rivalries as each pretty girl hopes to attract the attention of one of Carmen’s cast-offs.
Leonardi had taken over the role of Mercedes from Fenlon Lamb, who also directed the production. While local members of the audience likely recognized her from her four years on the Mount Desert Island High School stage, it would have been nice for others to realize the sort of marvelous talent we grow around here.
Fortune smiled on Bar Harbor and the opera world at large when Lamb, another mezzo-soprano who seems to have been born to play Carmen (and did sing the role here 11 years ago), decided to focus her creative energies and networking talents in the directorial and production aspects of opera.
Her direction here was filled with dramatic action — goodness the fight scenes!
And her Papermoon creative staff transformed the rather shallow Criterion stage into a proper opera venue. Jeffery Ridenour’s ingenious, hand-painted Tarot-themed set design created the illusion of depth with great sheets of patterned paper. Maureen Thomas pulled off an unbelievable transformation of paper into intricately embroidered and ruffled costumes. I say unbelievable because nobody in my party believed they were largely paper-made.
And then there is Cara Chowning, the brilliant pianist who deserved her own standing ovation for not only backing up the singers with the authority of a full-size orchestra, but for her scintillating solo interlude, in the third act.
It all came together as if by gypsy magic, with some singers jetting back and forth from Broadway and other performances around the country for this one-night-only wonder.
If you missed it, all is not lost. The Bar Harbor Music Festival will be presenting live musical performances through July 28. And pay close attention next July when the opera once again rolls into town.