Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How to Sing

How to Sing

Catch the vowel, plastic wonder.
Extend. Spin to the realm of
vibration, incarnation of breath,
trick of tone

Pop the consonant, Shakespearean
neutral, crack another egg,
open to the lips, toothcarve,
tongueshift, ceramic wind,
sonic floret, bouquet, filigree

Puzzle the syllables into streams,
meander, slice the clock into
boxes, lay them inside.
Push the edges. Swing.
Sustain. Work the quiet.
Erupt. Goof around.

Reasons we do it:
erectus matesigh,
a shout carried long,
a sob lifted.
It seems to make us
human, takes the prison of
self and flares it
across the landscape.

It’s possible to connect the
song to a thing we miscall
the heart, but you need to
close your eyes and
briefly give up your life.

Have a drink. Have two.
Fill your lungs with sky.
Draw the spectrum across your
larynx; you are a stringed
instrument, gorged with overtone,
rimmed with bellstrike, a
cellular call to the
oscillating world.

One day, when the green flash
gives way to a blue moon,
you may find that the
song is singing you.
You may then call yourself
a singer.

Notes: A rare case (for me), of trying to answer a big question - or at least taking something huge in human existence down to its bare essentials.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Opera San Jose's Carmen

Lisa Chavez as Carmen in the tavern scene. All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Bizet’s Carmen
February 13, 2016

If Layna Chianakas intended to prove the difference that a stage director can make, she could not have done better. With a single split-second action, she changed the entire discourse of the story, probably ticked off a few purists, and certainly messed with the idea of Carmen as a feminist icon. (I won’t reveal this split-second action here, but if you’d like to know, I’ll describe it at the end of this review.) I, for one, enjoyed the move, but then it neatly agrees with my take on the character: that Carmen was so possessed by medieval superstitions and megalomania that she was determined to fulfill the destiny spelled out in her Tarot cards.

A memorable OSJ Carmen herself, Chianakas went a little “method” in researching gypsy culture, and her discoveries about that culture’s communal tightness and lack of personal boundaries shows itself here. Most memorable is the opening of the tavern scene, a mass of figures flowing around the stage with the dramatic geometries of a baroque painting, then bursting into flamenco handclaps and footstomps. The frenzy builds during Carmen’s tambourined “Les tringles des sistres tintaient.”

Eventually, of course, all the direction in the world fails without talent, but San Jose’s lineup is loaded. Lisa Chavez was born to play Carmen, equipped with the classic Carmen look, vocal power and attitude. She does a masterful job of tempering that power, keeping her powder dry for the truly dramatic moments. In the Habanera and other classic passages, she retains a self-assured cool that gives her the bearing of a leader.

Lisa Chavez as Carmen, Kirk Dougherty as Don Jose.
Kirk Dougherty sings Don Jose with a spinto tenor and an effective, edgy ring in the top notes. He uses his thin physique to convey a Jose who is unable to stand up to the larger-than-life Carmen. The final phrases of his Flower Song are heart-breakingly tender and fragile. Later, he plays the final stalking scene with a particularly creepy sense of insecurity, the lashing out of a powerless man.

With her big, bright eyes, it’s easy for Jennifer Forni to portray Micaela’s innocence, but she does well to hint at the ferocity of her attachment to Jose. She and Dougherty blend beautifully on the Act 1 theme associated with Jose’s mother, which reappears in Act 3 (followed by a rather lengthy kiss), and she sings the renowned “Je dis que rien nem epouvante” with lovingly crafted crescendos.

Baritone Matthew Hanscom wrestles with the low opening of the Toreador Song, but otherwise delivers a confident, charismatic Escamillo, helped in the tavern scene by the ensemble’s energetic greeting. His voice truly comes alive in the faceoff with Jose in Act 3.

Jennifer Forni as Micaela.
The second tier of singers features some solid voices from OSJ’s past, including baritone Daniel Cilli in the brief-but-pivotal role of Morales, and the seasoned bass of Kirk Eichelberger as the ill-fated Zuniga. The opera comique smugglers Dancaire and Remendado (baritone Eugene Brancoveanu and tenor Michael Boley) lead the Gypsy Quintet through the smuggling plan with precision vocals and phsyical schtick in the Rossinian “Nous avons en tete une affaire.” Carmen’s gal-pal Mercedes is yet another former OSJ Carmen, mezzo Cybele Gouverneur. As for gal-pal #2, I have never heard a Frasquita I didn’t like, and soprano Christine Capsuto certainly fits that bill, playing her as a proto-rocker chick with edgy humor. Her victory dance when the cards predict a rich, near-death husband is hilarious.

Giulio Cesare Perrone’s sets are inventive and utile, providing high archways for the plaza scenes and a brooding, stark mountain set for the gypsy hideaway. Carmen’s Act 2 outfit, a blood red skirt with a black spangled corset, is just hot (Alyssa Oania, costume coordinator). Fight director Kit Wilder maintains a good balance between compelling scuffles and keeping his singers off the disabled list. Conductor Joseph Marcheso led the orchestra in a sumptuous reading of Bizet’s score, particularly in the delicate interplay of flute and harp (and later, exquisite swells of strings) in the Act 3 entre’acte.

Christine Capsuto and Alexandra Jerinic as Frasquita and Mercedes.
The mystery figure of the teenage toreador adds nicely to the intrigue. The two dancers (Gabriel Mata and April Shippen), added a vigrous, athletic element to the proceedings. And the children’s chorus was just superb. In a completely selfish mode, I’d like to thank PR man Bryan Ferraro for the new press kit, basically a standard program with blank pages for critic’s notes. Brilliant!

Through February 28, the California Theater, 345 South First Street, San Jose. $51-$151, www.operasj.org, 408/437-4450.

SPOILER: Carmen, impatient with Jose’s inability to make good on his threats, grabs his hand and forces him to stab her.

Michael J. Vaughn is a long-time opera critic and the author of 17 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice.