Kelly Kaduce, Atlanta’s Polly Peachum
© Ken Howard
FOR THE SPRING 2021 production in its “Big Tent” series, one full year into the coronavirus pandemic, Atlanta Opera distilled Bizet’s Carmen to its bare bones and reset Bizet’s fantasy in a low-rent Texas bar owned by Lillas Pastia. Tomer Zvulun, the company’s general and artistic director, and conductor Jorge Parodi conceived this reinterpretation and presented The Threepenny Carmen in repertory with Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera (seen April 30 and May 1).
AO’s Big Tent series made its debut in fall 2020 with an abridged Pagliacci and Viktor Ullmann’s one-act Kaiser von Atlantis; the company also presented concerts sung by the newly inaugurated Atlanta Opera Company Players, a troupe of internationally acclaimed artists based in Atlanta. This spring, the circus tent has been erected on the parking lot in front of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The performances were still outdoors, but getting closer to the stage that AO has called home for the past fifteen years, a place that Zvulun referred to as the “promised land” during his opening remarks on April 30.
Health protocols were observed, and patrons were still required to wear masks. However, AO’s Health and Safety Advisory Task Force loosened restrictions a bit, in light of the recent availability of the Covid-19 vaccinations and greater clarity concerning the treatment of the virus. The corona-virus nightmare pervades the plot of The Threepenny Carmen. Don José’s mother is in the hospital, sick with the virus. Cocktail waitresses wear masks, as do Carmen and Escamillo, sleazy lounge singers who occupy the gritty existence devised by set designer Julia Noulin-Mérat. Flamenco dancer and choreographer Sonia Olla infused Pastia’s bar with piquant dance, the only evocation of Seville within the production.
Much of Bizet’s opera was trimmed down. A chamber orchestra of nine instrumentalists played from a tent behind the stage. Chorus numbers were deleted, and the remaining ensemble sections were accomplished by a quartet of supporting characters including Alejandra Sandoval (Frasquita), Gabrielle Beteag (Mercédès), Nathan Munson (Remendado) and Calvin Griffin (Dancaïre).
On April 30, the Gypsy was sung by American mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, a Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Finals winner in 2018, who is exceedingly comfortable with the capabilities of her splendid voice. Don José—in this production a local police officer—was sung by Richard Trey Smagur, another Met National Council winner and a tenor of great potential. As gratifying as it was to hear these two very promising young artists at work in Bizet’s score, both seemed underrehearsed and underprepared for the Atlanta Opera mainstage. Theo Hoffman, the Escamillo, gave the same impression, as did Sandoval and Beteag in an amateurish, under-tempo “Mêlons! Coupons!” Only soprano Jasmine Habersham seemed refined enough for her part, singing Micaëla’s “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” behind a mask and still managing to transport the audience beyond the circus tent.
AO’s production of Threepenny Opera was an entirely different proposition, its cast, who all sang masked, seeming much more practiced. Conducted by Francesco Milioto and narrated by a puritanical Mr. Fred Rogers (Tom Key, who was also Carmen’s Lillas Pastia), the show was an amalgamation of puppetry (coordinated by Jon Ludwig) and live artists telling Brecht and Weill’s bawdy story.
Tenor Jay Hunter Morris’s Macheath opened the show with a chilling version of the “Ballad of Mack the Knife,” strolling the length of the catwalk, slitting throats. At the end of the number, the sea of bodies was resurrected, each one assuming his or her part in the play. Among them was soprano Kelly Kaduce, whose highly entertaining, bullwhip-brandishing Polly Peachum sported a mass of bleached-blonde hair. Kaduce, best known for her portrayals of Puccini heroines, was an unexpected choice for Polly, although she played the role previously at Boston Lyric Opera. Kaduce’s wedding-night duet “Liebeslied” with Morris was a high point, cleverly directed and executed to satirize romantic love.
Costume designer Joanna Schmink outfitted the singers in Weill’s anti-opera with a colorful range of apparel, sometimes fabulous and other times underwhelming, in order to portray the underbelly of London society. The ladies in Macheath’s life donned crinoline ruffles and shabby stockings, except for Lucy (Gina Perregrino), whose scarlet lingerie evoked Lotte Lenya and 1920s Berlin.
The imposing Joshua Conyers sang the role of Tiger Brown, the impotent chief of police who couldn’t seem to keep Macheath locked up. Conyers’s robust baritone was amiable, as exemplified by his performance of “Cannon Song.” Kevin Burdette, a former Pirate King in Atlanta, returned to the company as Jonathan Peachum, his physicality brilliant as he made a mockery of bourgeois propriety.