OPERA NEWS - Man of La Mancha (7/18/15), Traviata (7/19/15)
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In Review > North America

Man of La Mancha (7/18/15), Traviata (7/19/15)

Central City Opera

Schaufer, Orth and Jameson in La Mancha at Central City
© Kira Horvath
In Review Central City Traviata lg 1015
Dehn, Central City’s Violetta
© Amanda Tipton

FOR ITS 2015 mainstage summer season, eighty-three-year-old Central City Opera paired the ever-durable La Traviata with something less expected — Mitch Leigh’s Tony Award-winning musical Man of La Mancha. But, as director Paul Curran’s engrossing production made abundantly clear, Man of La Mancha (seen July 18) is nicely suited to a performance by an opera company, thanks to its full-bodied, Spanish-tinged score (vibrantly realized here by conductor Adam Turner) and a book by Dale Wasserman that has genuine dramatic depth.

Curran, who has served as an artistic consultant to the company since 2006, pared away the theatrical clichés that have grown up around this work with an intimate, stripped-down staging that was ideal for Central City’s historic 550-seat opera house. He managed to capture the warmth and wit of this story of dreams and determination without flinching from the rawness of the sexual violence during one of its key scenes. A few anachronisms inevitably came with the decision to move the piece to a contemporary setting and with the oddly blithe depiction of the prisoners, who neither looked nor acted like people facing potential execution.

The apt scenery by designer Court Watson was essentially no scenery at all, just a kind of open backstage with a few random set pieces leaning against the back wall, a dozen or so mismatched chairs and abundant, overtly visible side, back and top lighting. Effectively combining these minimal elements with some imaginative choreography and pantomime, Curran captured the innate theatricality of this musical while playing up the improvisatory nature of its play-within-a-play. (An especially deft touch was the humorous portrayal of the two mules with little more than wire-framed headdresses, clever movement and a little well-timed braying.)

La Mancha is centered on the poet Miguel de Cervantes, who takes on the role of his idealistic knight, Don Quixote. The show requires a singer with a big presence and a story-telling sensibility who can really fill out and occupy this all-encompassing role. Central City found just such a performer in baritone Robert Orth, a veteran singer who has appeared with the company since the 1980s. While he might not have the bold, muscular sound sometimes associated with this role, Orth is an expressive, multifaceted singer who delivered more than enough oomph when it mattered, as in the musical’s most famous song, “The Impossible Dream.” 

Orth was well complemented by the rest of the strong cast, including tenor Keith Jameson, who delivered an effusive, zany turn as the knight’s servant, Sancho Panza, and smoky-sounding mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer, who touchingly conveyed both the resigned and hopeful sides of the resolute if much-abused barmaid, Aldonza. 

La Traviata (seen July 19) is close to being a perfect opera in every respect, so director Elise Sandell, making her mainstage Central City debut, wisely chose to step back and let the piece unfold on its own terms in a first-rate production. No time shifts or interprettive overlays here. Sandell imbued the party scenes with motion and verve and, most importantly, zeroed in on the humanity and complexity of the opera’s three central characters. Peter Harrison’s eye-grabbing, opulent sets (first seen in the company’s 2007 production) offered a traditional nineteenth-century mise-en-scène but exhibited plenty of theatrical flair, starting with the opening scene with its crystal chandelier and gold mermaid-supported candelabra adorning the walls.

Heading the production’s excellent cast was soprano Ellie Dehn, who lit up the main character, Violetta Valéry, with her sparkling stage presence, affecting acting and charismatic brio. With a radiant, dazzlingly agile voice that could hardly be better suited to this music, she handled every facet of the role with confidence and aplomb, from its most challenging coloratura to its most tender moments. In short, this was a star-worthy performance in every way.

Aside from a few awkward vocal shadings, tenor Ryan MacPherson’s Alfredo proved to be a worthy partner to Dehn’s Violetta: the two singers conveyed a real sense of romantic chemistry. The production’s other standout was Troy Cook, a veteran baritone with a pleasing, pliable voice. In a stirring debut as Giorgio Germont, he delivered a technically flawless performance as he burrowed in and conveyed the emotional core of the conflicted father. One hopes to see more of him in this role. Conductor John Baril provided fine support in the pit. —Kyle MacMillan

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