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Opera Santa Barbara

OPERA SANTA BARBARA opened its season with a strong production of Carmen (seen Nov. 6) that filled the elegant 1500-seat Granada Theatre for both performances of its two-show run. With more than fifty singers on stage—joined on occasion by dancers and supernumeraries, and supported by a thirty-eight-piece orchestra—this was undoubtedly one of the most ambitious productions in the company’s twenty-three-year history. The production also marked the performance debut of artistic director Kostis Protopapas. Previously the artistic director of Tulsa Opera, where he had served since 2008, Protopapas joined Opera Santa Barbara in July 2015. For Carmen, he served as both conductor and chorus master.

In the title role, Leann Sandel-Pantaleo immediately commanded the audience’s attention, fully embracing the character’s sultry and impetuous nature. If in the early scenes her performance was a touch reserved—the Habanera seemed just a bit too routine—both her voice and characterization grew increasingly vivid as the opera progressed. By Act IV there was little to question about her ample vocal and dramatic abilities. 

As Micaëla, the Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique sang with nuance and great expressivity.  Her moving rendition of “Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante” received lengthy and well-deserved applause. Keith Phares brought a rich, full voice to Escamillo, while Harold Meers gave an especially fine performance as Don José.  

Beyond the leads, perhaps the most notable element of the performance was the twenty-five-member chorus, which sang throughout with exquisite tone and balance, and contributed significantly to the production’s generally high degree of polish. They were joined in several scenes by the members of the Santa Barbara Youth Opera, a program that was started earlier this year. These energetic young singers seemed completely at ease on the stage, and one couldn’t help but be impressed by the collective quality of their French diction. 

A colorful touch was added to the opening moments of both Acts II and III with the introduction of a trio of Flamenco dancers, led by Wendy Castellanos-Wolf. While the dancers certainly exhibited great skill and added pleasant variety to the scene, their rhythmic stomping occasionally drowned out the orchestra, and on one occasion traveled far enough from the underlying pulse of the music as to produce a rather unidiomatic polymeter. 

The set, borrowed from San Jose Opera, featured a large central stairway, surrounded by a vaguely Moorish mélange of stone and brick walls. At several points the large cast was artfully distributed amongst the steps to create appealingly picturesque tableaus, though the relatively small amount of level floor-space seemed to limit the movements of dancers and, at times, seemed to be a hindrance when a character needed to quickly traverse the stage. The costuming, supervised by Stacie Logue and supplied by Baltimore-based A.T. Jones and Sons, was notably lavish.

Opera Santa Barbara’s rather bifurcated season will resume in March, with The Cunning Little Vixen, followed by La Rondine and a production of Hans Krása’s childrens’ opera Brundibár featuring the company’s new youth opera program.  —Edmond Johnson

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