Opera NEO’s ‘Carmen’ Works Its Magic Under the Stars

Given San Diego’s dependable balmy summer nights, outdoor performance is a predictable penchant, from the Old Globe’s permanent Lowell Davies Theatre to the San Diego Symphony’s elaborate summer encampment on San Diego Bay. This season, Opera NEO opted for the Palisades Amphitheater adjacent to Palisades Presbyterian Church, a modest sized but pleasantly designed outdoor stage perched on the north ridge of Mission Valley.

Jon Jurgens and Ashley Cutright [photo (c) Gary Payne]

Jon Jurgens and Ashley Cutright [photo (c) Gary Payne]

Opera NEO’s summer workshop and festival has defined itself by mounting rarely staged operas and featuring young professional singers who need to acquire professional onstage experience. To fulfill the first category, this weekend’s fare (August 7 & 8) offered Mozart’s The Impresario and complemented it with Bizet’s Carmen, a vehicle with a number of juicy roles for aspiring divas and divos.

Since most of Carmen’s action takes place outdoors and the lengthy third act is set on a hillside at night, the opera adapted well to the Palisades Amphitheater. My eyebrows raised skeptically when Opera NEO announced that Carmen would be the second offering of a double bill, but I confess that the subtle reworking of the score by Opera NEO’s Artistic Director Peter Kozma and the production’s stage director Josh Shaw did not sacrifice anything crucial. Much of the first act’s mood and place setting was left out, but, of course, even people who would never be caught dead in an opera house know what Carmen is about and where it takes place.

I am happy to report that Kozma recruited some fine young voices for his cast. In the title role, mezzo-soprano Ashley Cutright electrified the stage with brilliant, powerful singing and that utter confidence in her character’s amoral self-interest that eludes many a seasoned Carmen. From Cutright’s program bio, this production appears to be her first staged Carmen. The bright ping of her mezzo proved beautifully even throughout her range, and she navigated with ease both lyrical and coloratura passages.

Her Don José, Jon Jurgens, lacked vocal focus in his opening scene, but his fine tenor voice

Jon Jurgens [photo (c) Gary Payne]

Jon Jurgens [photo (c) Gary Payne]

bloomed as the opera progressed and as he responded to Cutright’s vocal strength. By the opera’s tragic climax, he had opened up a vocal richness and dramatic urgency in his voice that matched Cutright’s, and his soul-searing anguish gave Don José refreshing dignity. Kristin Fahning’s clear, well-produced soprano served her well as Micaela, and she had the dramatic sense to avoid the self-pity with which some sopranos invest Don José’s jilted girlfriend. As those indispenable gypsies Frasquita and Mercedes, sopranos Desirae Gonzales and Tzytle Steinman sang with clarion verve, and their dashing second act quintet with Cutright and the two smugglers sung by Nathan Ward and Ben Kahan was as crisply executed as any I have heard over decades of Carmen’s.

Bass Andrew Potter did not find the convincing swagger that the toreador Escamillo requires, and he had occasional pitch problems even when he was not treating Escamillo’s high notes with trepidation. As Zuniga, Don José’s senior officer, bass Christopher Edwards projected confidence and warmth with a surprisingly mature sonority for a young singer.

Note for note, Bizet’s orchestral score is probably the most familiar to opera audiences, and Kozma’s pick-up orchestra realized it with assurance and panache. If you check the program below, you will see some of San Diego’s best instrumentalists in the first chair positions.

Ashley Cutright and  dancers chez Lillias Pastia [photo (c) Gary Payne]

Ashley Cutright and dancers chez Lillas Pastia [photo (c) Gary Payne]

Given the modest size of his stage and the technical equipment that needed to be brought in to make this outdoor venue work (this amphitheater has no shell, so judicious amplification was used), Josh Shaw wisely opted for minimal set design and pragmatic stage direction that kept the focus on the singing. Danita Lee’s chic, splashy 1940s costumes for the women allowed Shaw to turn Lillas Pastia’s tavern into a period nightclub with a stage and a tall, silver microphone. Tzytle Steinman devised the choreography (although her name was accidentally left out of the program).  In the nightclub, the women of the ensemble presented a flashy dance number that reminded me of lively scenes from those Hollywood films made in South America during the Second World War.

Michael Von Hoffman’s lighting design ably compensated for an amphitheater with no lighting of its own, although there was one unfortunate moment when poor Micaela and her lovely blue dress turned a lurid green.

A Carmen with no intermission proved a long sit on rather primitive benches, but the riveting drama and fine singing on the stage more than compensated.

Singspiel: Mozart’s The Impresario

Two hundred years before Americans came up with the convention of musical comedy, Germans had already invented this genre and called it Singspiel. While Mozart was in the middle of composing The Marriage of Figaro, the Emperor gave him a commission to write one of these trifles, which Mozart titled Der Schauspieldirektor and we call The Impresario.

An extended comic scene—the Emperor simply wanted an entertainment for some minor diplomatic function—with only two arias and a trio, Mozart took the commission for the fee. The music is moderately charming, showoff arias for competing divas, but even Opera NEO’s clever updating of the silly book produced excessive eye rolling.

Sopranos Jennifer Sung and Isabella Lamadriz gave creditable accounts of their arias. Sung’s more flexible voice sounded more Mozartean, although she was not quite up to the aria’s florid elaborations, and Lamadriz’s more ample and edgy voice gave the impression she was hoping for a meaty verismo role. Daveed Buzagio as the divas’ agent provided a light tenor presence in the trio, and Padraic Costello gave a breathless account of the (non-singing) impresario at his wits’ end. Kozma’s orchestra needed a few more rehearsals to bring Mozart’s overture to the level of their Carmen performance.

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This review was based on the performance of August 8, 2015, at the Palisades Amphitheater, 6301 Birchwood, San Diego. The Opera NEO Festival continues with a performance of Handel’s Rinaldo on August 14 & 15, 2015, in the same venue.



Opera NEO_program


  1. Havilah on August 10, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    Yes! Splendid review, thank you. I really enjoyed the performance and am excited to see what Opera Neo does next year 🙂

  2. Megan on August 10, 2015 at 9:40 pm

    I got to meet with the choreographer of the dance piece from Carmen she was actually the performer Tzytle Steinman who sang the role of Mercedes. She did excellent work all around!

  3. Ken Herman on August 12, 2015 at 2:29 am

    I confirmed with Opera NEO’s Artistic Director that Ms Steinman did create the choreography, and I have changed the review to reflect her contribution. Thank you.

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