Nashville Opera artistic director John Hoomes is an enthusiastic champion of the verismo style, and his new production of Georges Bizet's Carmen — Hoomes' second locally since 2005 and the company's fourth overall — promises to push the reality envelope with a stellar cast, a teeming onstage ensemble, hundreds of costumes and some of opera's liveliest music.
"It's Bizet meets Kill Bill," says Hoomes about what audiences can expect from the final effort in the company's 30th anniversary season. Those who know Carmen will still witness the familiar Spanish tale about the beautiful gypsy with the fiery temper. But leading lady Audrey Babcock, a mezzo-soprano who has sung the role all over the world, projects an earthy allure that Hoomes hopes will result in the most visceral Carmen he's had a chance to do. "Audrey is dynamic, personally charismatic and also has a strong background as a dancer," he says.
Hoomes revels in Carmen's underlying current of darkness and its classic struggle of love versus death. The big emotions and uncontrollable passions of the piece certainly demand more than opera's old-line "stand and sing" approach, and Babcock isn't the only veteran principal geared up for Hoomes' Tarantino-inspired encounter.
"This generation of singers wants to present their characters as a visceral theatrical experience," Hoomes says. "They are unafraid of the physical challenge. They bring to the task escalated levels of intensity and grittiness." That includes tenor Scott Piper as the vengeful Don José, baritone David Won (in his Nashville debut) as the toreador Escamillo, and soprano Jennifer Black, who plays the village maiden Micaela.
Hoomes also brought in fight choreographer Eric Pasto-Crosby to assist in the staging of this large-scale production, which also boasts the 72-person Nashville Opera Ensemble, each one of them with multiple costume changes. "We've got everything but animals," Hoomes quips.
On the musical side, veteran conductor James Meena, Opera Carolina's general director and principal conductor since 2000, makes his first appearance with Nashville Opera. He'll lead the Nashville Symphony in Bizet's 1875 score, famous for the "Toreador Song," "Habanera" and other catchy themes. The opera is sung in French with projected English translations.
"It's a dance to the death," Hoomes says, "with a climax that mirrors the bullring. It's quite shocking in the end. I guarantee our audience will not be bored."
Terrence McNally's 1993 play A Perfect Ganesh received Pulitzer consideration in its day, but has since fallen by the wayside, except for occasional revivals such as Rhubarb Theater's new staging. Essentially the story of two New England housewives who traipse across India for spiritual rejuvenation, the drama examines some tough realities, including gay-bashing and racial intolerance.
At the time of the New York debut, the stars — well-known stage actresses Zoe Caldwell and Frances Sternhagen — were both over 60. Trish Crist and Jaime Janiszewski are considerably younger than that, which doesn't necessarily vitiate their focused work, though their portrayals of Kitty Brynne and Margaret Civil, respectively, might be slightly less crusty than McNally's script intends. That said, director Paul Cook gamely keeps the women moving through two event-filled acts in which they board a plane and improvise their naive way around India, while also discovering important things about themselves and their friendship.
McNally writes crisp dialogue, and he reserves the play's darkest moments for the Kitty character, which affords Crist opportunity for a very painful, self-incriminating diatribe that encompasses her difficulties understanding her son's homosexuality and her anger at the gang of African-American males who killed him in Greenwich Village. Janiszewski's Margaret is a more buttoned-down figure whose own heartaches and mistrust are expressed with much more understatement.
McNally's résumé proves he also knows how to write comedy, though he subdues that broader impulse here. But Chris Bosen makes for a playful narrator, Ganesh (the Hindu religion's Remover of Obstacles), complete with elephant mask and costume courtesy of Melissa Bedinger-Hade. Wilhelm Peters plays many supporting roles with energy and sensitivity.
Certain elements of the play seem a little dated, and as a travelogue, it's certainly imperfect. It's much better as character study, though its brooding quality risks ennui even as it offers genuine insight.
A Perfect Ganesh runs through April 23 at Darkhorse Theater.
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So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
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