Mezzo-Soprano Kara Cornell on Hansel and Gretel, coming up at the Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre

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Kara Cornell as Carmen at Hubbard Hall, 2009
Kara Cornell as Carmen at Hubbard Hall, 2009

Kara Cornell, who sang and acted such a brilliant Carmen at Hubbard Hall last summer, and I recently shared a pleasant Australian blend at the Wine Bar on Lark in Albany, where we reminisced about Carmen—actually Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen, and talked about this summer’s upcoming production, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, in which, as Hansel, she will make a total about face from the dangerous gypsy. Considering Kara’s vivid and very funny Cherubino in the Capital Opera’s Nozze di Figaro last summer, she should be equally successful as the pre-pubescent wood-cutter’s boy. Knowing stage director Dianna Heldman’s sophistication and originality, I can foresee that Hansel and Gretel will go well beyond the usual family entertainment.

2010 will be Hubbard Hall Opera Theater’s third season. The company’s first production, Così Fan Tutte, immediately won me over with its cast of mostly excellent young singers and the brilliant production, which fit Così into the small local “opera house” which has been the cultural heart of Cambridge, New York since the late 19th century. I’m not sure if HHOT is the only company at Hubbard Hall to use the space in the way they do, but they know how to make it work. The built-in configuration is reversed and bleachers are constructed over the stage and around the sides, so that the audience surround the action on three sides. The orchestra plays under the balcony, concealed by an acoustically transparent screen, and the singers have the balcony and the floor free for dramatic exploitation. This arrangement presents its own acoustical problems, but the company manage it effectively, especially in Carmen, which lacks Così’s many passages of pairs singing closely together in harmony.

I consider HHOT an especially valuable enterprise, not only because their two productions have proven so successful, but because small-scale and chamber opera is a compelling art form which has been slow to develop in America. For us mainstream opera is “grand opera,” and the Met is its temple, the house where you’ll hear big voices and an orchestra honed by James Levine, and see the ultimate in sets and costumes on a huge stage. Our operatic life will be all the richer as small companies like HHOT and New York Collective of the Performing Arts, which produced one of the brilliant successes of the Boston Early Music Festival Fringe last summer, continue to flourish. Nothing would please me more than to see a chamber opera group in an acoustically outstanding space seating, say, under 500 people, in a major city. A crack chamber orchestra comfortable with modern and period instruments and singers drawn from the best of the gifted and well-trained young talent who perform in regional companies around the country could bring the plan to life. One could imagine the TMC staged productions organized into a season with more carefully realized staging. Hubbard Hall’s focus on the essentials is another solution, as almost black box opera. Both approaches have their own virtues. At Tanglewood young singers of the highest caliber enjoy the opportunity to work with their peers in the pit, under the direction of James Levine and a select Conducting Fellow, while prominent stage directors, often with an experimental bent, incarnate their dramatic interaction. HHOT manage to turn slender resources into virtue: in that central arena in the little hall simple props and costumes leave one’s imagination free to envision the essential in the drama—and this was brilliantly achieved in Carmen.

Carmen studies her future in Peter Brook's "La Tragédie de Carmen"
Carmen studies her future in Peter Brook's "La Tragédie de Carmen"

Rather than Bizet’s original opéra-comique, which, with its choruses and incidentals, would have been unproduceable for the small company, it was decided to tackle Peter Brook’s spare version from the early 1950’s, less than 90 minutes in duration. He called it La Tragédie de Carmen, turning Bizet’s designated genre on its head, and putting the gypsy women even more in the center of things, as a woman with an immense sexual aura who revels in her power over men. Brook’s Carmen may respond to the attraction of the moment, but she is fully aware that she is playing a dangerous game, and she has her tarot cards to track her position, as she approaches her death. Kara Cornell’s performance was truly extraordinary. Dianna Heldman’s staging called for a great deal of action, which never unseated Ms. Cornell’s totally secure production for a second. She sang impeccably throughout, with a rich lower register and a golden top. Andrew Cummings sang an assured, dark-voiced Escamillo. Tenor Cameron Smith excelled, singing Don José with a cleanly produced, bright, very attractive tone and strong acting.

The orchestra was considerably stronger than in the first year, avoiding almost entirely the problems of ensemble and intonation that occasionally marred Così. Michael Ricciardone, who, as a singer, actor, coach, and conductor, seems to be a musical jack-of-all-trades, led the 15-piece orchestra with steady control and dramatic energy. Still, imagine my surprise, when I saw him emerge from the “pit” followed by a large dog, who must have been lying quietly at his feet throughout the opera, unlike the humans in the audience, who had been on the edge of their seats.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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