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February 15, 2010

Staged opera returns to the Lyric with 'Carmen'

Valentine’s Day 2010 just might come to be viewed as the beginning of the return of the Baltimore Opera Company.

No, it won’t be called that – reclaiming the name of an organization that was liquidated last year probably wouldn’t be too cool, marketing-wise. It will be known as the Lyric Opera of Baltimore, but it will resemble in many ways the defunct company. If you were at the packed Lyric Opera House Sunday afternoon, you could easily have imagined that the new enterprise was already well-established.

Let’s face it. Baltimore loves its past. If someone could revive Hutzler’s or Hausner’s or other faded gems and make them just like they were years ago, an awful lot of folks would be thrilled. Same for Baltimore Opera; if it could somehow just materialize again (and honor all the worthless tickets people got stuck with when it folded), you know it would have a ready audience. The opera regulars want to be back in the Lyric, with a full season of good-quality productions that bear a local stamp.

For all of the ventures that have sprung up aimed at filling the void left by Baltimore Opera, nothing is likely to have as much appeal around here as something that looks, sounds and feels like the old company and is even housed in the old venue. That’s one big reason why, I think, there was such a packed house Sunday for “Carmen.” (Spotted in the audience: Michael Harrison, former general director of Baltimore Opera. This must have been a very bittersweet occasion for him.)

Never mind that this was an Opera New Jersey production, with the New Jersey Symphony in the pit. It was presented by the Lyric; it featured the former Baltimore Opera Chorus (which, curiously, was nowhere to be seen at the end, and didn’t get a bow); the stage director was Bernard Uzan, who worked with Baltimore Opera in the past; volunteers from the former company were on the scene. The whole back-to-the-future thing was impossible to miss.

The Lyric wants to see opera restored to the space, and with former Baltimore Opera staffer Jim Harp on staff as "director of opera and educational activities," chances look good that

some sort of substantial enterprise will take root there, especially after renovations to the theater. Harp’s charisma and dedication will serve the enterprise well, and his core idea of building collaborations with existing companies makes financial and logistical logic. If he can keep the Baltimore connections, too, as in the case of the chorus for this “Carmen,” he’s got an obvious selling point; local pride is not be sneezed at.

(Personally, I think forging a bond with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which used to play in the pit for Baltimore Opera way back when and is in the market for new revenue outlets, is something worth pursuing by any new Lyric-based company. I know this would be tough on the former opera orchestra, which had become a reliable asset over the past decade, but I don’t see how everything from the BOC days could come back anytime soon. And having the BSO on board could change the dynamics and the possibilities in several positive ways.)

Needless to say, one performance on a Sunday afternoon of such a popular work as “Carmen” hardly means that a full-fledged grand opera company at the Lyric is a done deal. But, like I said, the sense of a big step being taken toward that goal was evident all over the theater.

This was, on balance, a pretty decent “Carmen.” Uzan's concept for this iconic work places all the action within a bullring-like area; the chorus is confined to the arena seats. The first time I encountered his approach years ago in a production at Florida Grand Opera, I wasn’t entirely sold on it; I wasn’t entirely sold on the similar version he devised for Opera New Jersey, either. But the essentials of the drama came through strongly enough, even without the extra atmosphere of scenery changes and animated crowd scenes. And the use of choreography, by Peggy Hickey, to fill out the action proved mostly effective. (The exception came in the symbolic dance during the final Entr’acte, when a disheveled Don Jose wandered disruptively into the ballet corps; it wasn’t meant to be funny, of course, but it looked dangerously close to an “I Love Lucy” episode when Lucy did much the same thing one night at the Tropicana.)

The production’s originally announced star attraction, mezzo Denyce Graves, canceled a few weeks ago for health reasons. Stepping in was Kirstin Chavez, sounding like stellar material herself, with a ripe, evenly produced tone; lots of dynamic phrasing (even at rather slow tempos for her arias); and acting that, while not without its clichéd sensual poses, had a natural, involving flair. Richard Leech, as Don Jose, kept mostly to one volume, but poured on the passion persuasively. Luis Ledesma needed a little more vocal heft and tone coloring as Escamillo, but delivered the goods; he did expressive, nuanced work in his duet with Chavez in Act 4. Caitlin Lynch, as Micaela, was dressed much too Rebecca of Sunnybrook Granja, but the soprano sang radiantly, sculpting phrases with as much technical finesse as communicative richness.

The supporting cast proved respectable. The former Baltimore Opera choristers, billed as the Lyric Opera of Baltimore Chorus, produced a zesty, cohesive sound and neatly carried out the minimal action required of them (this included standing up to point at Don Jose a couple of times – not one of Uzan’s most inspired touches). The New Jersey Symphony played with care and style. Conductor Joseph Rescigno didn’t always keep everyone together tightly, but he brought a good deal of intensity, as well as poetry, to the score.

It sure will be interesting to see how things develop at the Lyric from here.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:01 AM | | Comments (9)


did you notice that Carmen was miked? and did or does that effect how you feel she did? While I liked he tone, the moment I realized she was miked I lost respect for her. Escamillo again pretty of tone, was also miked and lacked any form of diction. I was ecstatic to see the mixed age of the crowd representing a greater cross section of the socioeconomic background of this burg then former BOC audiences seemed to be. The Coro who's fans, friends & family showed up in droves deserved a bow as they are a huge part of the Carmen score and one of the "advertised" selling points of This specific production. Just my thoughts, Keep up the good work Tim, I check in your blog daily.


UPDATE: Jim Harp at the Lyric confirms that there was NO use of amplification, no miking of singers. The visible microphones were used to provide audio to dessing rooms and backstage, a common practice in this and other houses. (Although I was concerned at first when I spotted the floor mikes, I never detected the slightest indication of amplified voices. And no speakers were evident.) TIM

Among the most significant steps taken by this production was to partner with a company that's close enough geographically to help conserve costs while not being so close as to significantly affect ticket sales at either location. That kind of fiscal responsibility will be essential for any bew company — in Baltimore or anywhere — to survive in the future.

Tim, thank you for checking. However, If she was not miked then why was there audio feedback during her big scene with Don Jose in the first 1/2 of the opera?

Good question. I didn't hear it, however. Believe me, I'm often suspicious of miking and other electronic enhancements, so I sympathize with you. One check of amplification (in my book) is what happens when a singer turns away from the listener. Whenever Chavez or anyone else was turned away from where I was situated, they sounded less loud. Microphones, of course, would have kept the sound the same. What you experienced could relate to the monitors backstage. Anyway, perhaps Mr. Harp will clarify all of this directly himself. TIM

I saw yesterday's performance, from the first row, and I have a question. I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I'd never seen Carmen before, and I was surprised that, in the final scene, she grabbed Don Jose's hand with the knife and, in effect, stabbed herself, committing suicide. Is that the way it is always done?

First of all, you have nothing to feel embarrassed about. I think it's cool that you were a first-timer, and "Carmen" is certainly a good one to start with. The stabbing scene was a directorial decision, and one I've seen made before. It can, I suppose, be justified on the grounds that Carmen has resigned herself to the fate of death, which she saw in the cards. But it's not exactly what the opera specifies. (Please excsue the delay in responding; I had to go to DC yesterday and got back very late, at which point I couldn't use the computer because of a a software thing going on.) TIM

Sunday afternoon's performance of "Carmen" was a glorious and welcome affirmation of grand opera at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore! I again confirm that no sound amplification of any kind was made to project into the theatre. Microphones were present, as have been for years at the Lyric and other theatres, to provide a much-needed audio feed to the dressing rooms, backstage area, and to the stage area to enhance ensemble coordination. The brief audio feedback "echo" in the second act occurred when the singers requested that the orchestra feed to the stage be increased so they could better hear the orchestra.
We are grateful and heartened by the tremendous audience response to our performance and look forward to many future years of grand opera at the Lyric!

Yes, it will be interesting to see how things develop at the Lyric from here. However, I, for one, hope that they don't develop along the lines of the production of Carmen seen Sunday, April 14.

You wrote, "The opera regulars want to be back in the Lyric, with a full season of good-quality productions that bear a local stamp." I agree wholeheartedly. I do indeed want to see opera performed professionally in Baltimore. However, the pathetic staging of Bernard Uzan's misguided efforts left such a sour taste in my musical mouth that I am unable to praise the afternoon's efforts as a fully staged performance of the opera. I found it puerile, amateurish, and very not what Bizet would have seen performed in 1875.
The confinement of the chorus was a distraction, not a creative addition to the work. The occasional participation in the action on the stage was disgruntling. Nowhere does the libretto suggest a Greek chorus, and the opera chorus's role was certainly reduced to spectators who occasionally came to life [and often should not have physically, as when they were directed to stand up and point at don José a few times].
The surtitles several times read antithetical to the action on the stage. For example, at the very moment the tobacco factory girls exited the factory for their break, the soldiers, according to the surtitles, lamented that the beautiful girls were ignoring them. However, it was at the same time that the girls drifted balletically to a partner and played airily in his arms--silly and amateurish. The sung French text seldom corresponded to the text in the surtitles. Its English was much more a description than a translation. This was unsettling to someone who understood and knew the French.
I surmise that the corps de ballet must have financed much of the production. Their participation, abundantly more than evan a French opera demands of terpsichorean activity, ended up an intrusion, finally and flagrantly intercalated into the act IV orchestral prelude. Don José's entrance into their dance removed any semblance of professionalism. I'm surprised that those around me didn't all laugh out loud.
The singers, and especially the wonderfully prepared and talented chorus, deserved a production that emphasized and demonstrated the verismo inherent in the opera. The dancers were talented, and their often delicate choreography would have been better suited to a Faustian Walpurgisnacht or Massenet Cours-la-Reine. The cigarières would have been cheered in a Swan Lake. They were not Spanish gypsies.
You were, as always, gentlemanly and kind in your review. I cannot agree that this production is a view into the future of opera in Baltimore. Horribile dictu!

Well, I did say "pretty decent." I suppose it helped that I already had seen Uzan's take years ago, so I wasn't surprised by it. I did mention that I wasn't sold on it. And, believe me, I wouldn't want to see this sort of pleasant provincialism become the norm here. What I was trying to indicate was that this experience had the feel of a first step toward something. That's was what impressed me, not the actual staging (although, if you could overlook the dancing and all that stuff, the principals were delivering a solid, traditional, strongly-acted performance). Given where we were last winter, operatically speaking, I'd say it's significant that the Lyric -- not the most lavishly funded institution in town -- mustered the resources to put on anything that resembled grand opera. I would like to think this whetted the appetite around here. There are certainly other options for importing and/or collaborating on productions. Pittsburgh isn't that far away, for example, and I've seen high-level work there. Of course, I still think DC could get into the picture with the right planning and budgeting, and I think that could mean a step up. And, in time, it's certainly possible at least to envision a thoroughly homegrown effort rising here again someday. Given that you focused exclusively on the production, perhaps you found the musical level acceptable. I've said before that I value musical assets more than theatrical in opera (ideally, I like them both to be fabulous), and, on those grounds, I'd still say that, on balance, we got a "pretty decent 'Carmen.' TIM

I wish I had been able to see the production on Sunday. I think that it is potentially an inspiring move signaling the return of Grand Opera to Baltimore, but I'm only cautiously optimistic. Even a company that may call its Lyric Opera of Baltimore (is that REALLY the best name of which they could think?), as long as it brings in productions, no matter from how close, and only shoves in former members of the Baltimore opera chorus at the last minute, it is only just another presenting organization, and not by any stretch an opera company. I hope that this entity will endeavor to begin presenting its own work, and to rise above the status-quo.

I refuse to fall for the argument that sharing productions with other North East companies is an effective cost saving measure, and all and all a win-win. I think it is a dangerous sentiment, and is more likely a lose-lose. Baltimore deserves its own company, and if the work was more interesting (which was certainly not the case with the Baltimore Opera, and does not seem to be what the Lyric is interested in so far) the people would come with time, and actually be sustainable. Baltimoreans can handle more daring repertoire, and particularly more daring stagings, and the city is full of talented people from which to draw. Shipping in these tired traditional standard rep productions will not inspire the flame of opera in Baltimore. I was just talking to a friend that is the director of Mannheim opera, and he tells me that within 20 kilometers of Mannheim there are four other major presenting houses. This isn't just because people in Germany love opera, but because they love THEIR opera house. Frankfort would never stand to be shipped a production by Mannheim. Now, of course they are able to do 35+ productions a year because of federal subsidies, and we all know that. But, certainly Baltimore could have a company that produced four to five productions a year of truly uniquely Baltimore style. The Baltimore Opera Company didn't fail because Baltimore can't support an opera company, it failed because (beyond fiscal mismanagement), it just wasn't very good in terms of repertoire, productions, or outreach. It was boring, and tired, and not creative at all.

This is such an exciting time in opera in Baltimore. One can go see Baltimore Concert Opera to concentrate on the music of traditional repertoire in an intimate setting, one can go out for an evening of accessible opera in English with Opera Vivente, one can see innovative and theatrical opera with American Opera Theater, and of course there is always Peabody Opera as well, doing great and inventive work with Roger Brunyate. It would, indeed, be great to add to that list a large scale company (and I love your idea of bringing Baltimore Symphony into the equation), but only if they are going to really produce opera the city can take pride in and stand behind.

Thanks for the passion. I just finished posting some comments along the lines of yours. And speaking of the BSO, one reason, beyond potential financial beneift, of getting the orchestra involved might be to bring Marin Alsop into the equation. And that could mean more interesting rep and productions -- I'm thinking immediately of the excellent Opera Colorado (co-)production of "Nixon in China" that she conducted a couple years ago. But these are just dreams, of course, for the monent. Speaking of co-productions, they really are the way of the world today, and not just in this country. No one, not even the Met, can afford to present only self-created ventures. It's how the collaboration is achieved and presented that counts. TIM

I was not present at the performance on the 14th, so I will not delve into any of the mic-ing, surtitlles used, etc. discussions.

I'm always finding it humorous, though, when anyone writes something to the effect that a given performance doesn't meet the standards of composer X as originally performed in year infinity. While many composers indicate specific staging notes in scores, leeway is still granted to directors when it comes to staging. Whether or not the director's intent works well with the music is an entirely different matter--but is no more or less arrogant than anyone popping off a critique while trying to "speak" on the "behalf" of a deceased composer.

Just because a particular composer indicated specific items in a score doesn't mean that said composer would or wouldn't be open to re-interpretation. Musicology is at the very least a basic starting point--but like many of life's mysteries, no one can possibly know everything about a composer's intentions and viewpoints on every little thing.

I was not at Sunday's opera, but I'd make a few points -

Re: Amplification
It is common practice for monitors to be placed on the stage for the cast to be able to hear the orchestra, not for amplification. This can cause feedback. (In fact, knowing Mr. Harp, the idea that he would even tacitly sanction amplification in the Lyric for an true opera performance I find laughable.)

Re: The BSO Tim, I don't think you've been around Baltimore long enough to remember, but the Meyerhoff was built, in large part, because of schedule conflicts between the opera and the orchestra. And my recollection is also that the Meyerhoff was designed specifically so it would NOT support opera production. And that was back when most operas only had three performances, and before the BSO had a "second home" in Montgomery County. The BSO basically told the opera company to "kiss-off". Why should an opera company abandon it's (reasonably stable) freelance musicians for a brief affair with the BSO while times are tough, only to be spurned again when times are better? In addition, many of those "freelance" musicians add immeasurably to the cultural life of Baltimore - they live here, they teach here, they supply a pool of talented players for many local organizations. The opera season provides them a modest amount of stability so they can stay in Baltimore. Of course the BSO musicians also contribute to the city. I'd like to have both. In the meantime, considering the enormous financial risk involved in a production where there was no subscription base to depend on, using an orchestra that knew the piece and could be bused in and back without a per diem is very understandable. And perhaps, one day, a special project (dare I say Wagner?) will reunite the BSO with an opera company again.
I have to stifle a chuckle at the criticisms of this effort. This was a first step and (near miraculously given the number of ticket holders "stiffed" by the BOC) apparently very-well attended. As I am told the Chinese say: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step". The same criticism of chorus stasis was made about a production of "The Pearl Fishers" not so many years ago, only this time (apparently) the lights stayed on (which they did not at the performance of Pearl Fishers I saw). Maybe it's a "Bizet thing" ... nah! LOL
You should have seen the Baltimore Opera 35 years ago - I remember a Carmen with Joanna Simon as Carmen, Nicolas Di Virgilio (who always elicited a groan from me when I saw his name on a cast list) as Jose, Carol Neblett as Micaela and Lawrence Shadur as Don Jose. It was the first, and I think the only time I fell asleep at the opera. The only bits that wakened me were when Ms. Neblett was singing - and I usually find Micaela's aria the most boring thing in the opera!

Of course, in those days the opera was virtually sold out BY SUBSCRIPTION. The first time I was able to snag an orchestra seat was a year the opera company accidentally scheduled a Cav/Pag on Yom Kippur, causing a number of subscribers to relinguish their seats.
But the opera company grew and we eventually had Neblett as Thais (leaving little to the immagination!), James Morris' first Wotan, Evelyn Lear as the Marschallin, an unforgettable Trovatore that I stood through (all three nights - I was younger then!) with a cast that was considered somewhat run-of-the-mill at the time, but would have the MET begging for their services now - Gilda Cruz-Romo, Ermanno Mauro, Ann Howard and Louis Quilico. (In truth, Ms Howard made her effect as Azucena through passion and acting rather than vocal splendor, but still, it was a powerful performance.)
A season including "La Juive" with Richard Tucker was announced the day before the great tenor's sudden, tragic death.

Rome wasn't built in a day ... neither is an opera company. Michael Harrison brought the company a long way before, IMHO, reaching for a bridge too far. (And perhaps there are other factors of which I am unaware). That company fell into the crevasse. The new company is starting with a debit of ill-will from the BOC not refunding ticket monies for productions that didn't take place. They need our support as they grow (and the occassional criticism when they go astray). But lets give them a chance ... Good enough is never good enough, but it is better than many companies manage on a first try.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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