If you have always thought you ought to give opera a try but were intimidated by its over-the-top costumes, voices and dramatics, then the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts may have just the entry point for you.
Last weekend, NOVA whittled down “Carmen,” an old warhorse of an opera, to “Carmen’s Tragedy,” a svelte pony of just 100 minutes, including intermission and opening remarks. It was an under-the-top, greatest-hits version of one of opera’s greatest hits, with voices and costumes intact but lots of the crowds and clamor gone.
If crowd reaction is any guide, the presentation was a great success. Craig Huisenga, interim managing producer for NOVA, said Saturday night’s show in NOVA’s Roebling Theater was packed, and only a few seats were vacant for the closing performance on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
The crowd was fully engaged, not just in the obligatory end-of-show standing ovation but also with shouts of “Bravo” and “Brava” throughout and clapping along to some of the better-known tunes. The cast wandered at times into the crowd, too, finding a hand to kiss or a lap to borrow. This was not some sterile homage to a classic but lively and contemporary theater, and all in English.
And the voices were terrific, no surprise to anyone who has followed Rimrock Opera productions over the years. This was the first opera show since Rimrock and Venture Theatre joined forces to form NOVA, and Sunday’s show preserved the quality if not the name.
Michelle Berger, a Montana native who has sung with operas in Switzerland, Spain, Colorado, Idaho and Billings, sang the title role with full volume and energy. William Mouat, director of education and cultural outreach at the Alberta Bair Theater, sang Escamillo, the bullfighter. Carolyn Coefield as Micaela had a relatively small part but practically stole the show with her third act aria.
Jayme Green showed up long enough to get stabbed in two separate scenes and as two different characters. Sandi Rabas provided flawless piano accompaniment.
Director Jeffrey Grant Kitto, one of the founding members of the Bozeman rock band The Clintons, also has wide opera experience. In the key role of Don Jose, he seemed to grow into his part as his character’s troubles mounted, from an easygoing and gullible soldier to an obsessed and murderous deserter.
The whole experience was a bit like watching one of those NFL highlight films. For a few minutes, you wonder why anyone would ever bother to watch a game any other way. Then eventually you figure out why all those pauses, penalties and busted plays are needed for the narrative flow and suspense of the live game.
Something of the same sense prevailed at “Carmen’s Tragedy.” It’s all fireworks and gorgeous music, but eventually you begin to wonder how all of these characters fit together. The 90-minute version often comes across as random episodes of philandering and violence with not much in between. Key characters die violently, and deserve to.
Mr. Huisenga promised the crowd that NOVA hasn’t given up on full-scale opera productions. The next, “La Traviata,” will play at the Alberta Bair Theater on Oct. 30 and Nov. 1.
For experienced opera goers, that will provide the full opera experience. For the rest of us, the Reader’s Digest condensed version we got last weekend makes for a rousing and highly entertaining introduction.