Central City offers splendid mainstage productions of ‘Così fan tutte’ and ‘Carmen’

Matthew Plenk (Ferrando), Hailey Clark (Fiordiligi), and David Adam Moore (Guglielmo).

The 2017 season of the Central City Opera (CCO) is well launched, with two splendid productions in the main theater: a musically solid and entertaining production of Bizet’s Carmen and a revelatory production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

Carmen opened the season July 8 and continues through Aug. 6. Using sets stored since CCO’s 2011 season, it had an all-new cast and director. Carmen is a tricky show to pull off on Central City’s small stage. The act set in Lillas Pastia’s tavern works well, but the other three force compromises that are not always effective, including an awkward ballet in place of the bullfighters’ parade in the final act.

In Sunday’s performance (July 16), Emily Pulley was slow to ignite the fiery title role. She remained a flickering Carmen, at times burning at full heat, at times smoldering without catching fire. She was at her best in duos with Don José and other small ensemble scenes, where her characterization came through most strongly.

Making his CCO debut, Adriano Graziani was a natural Don José. He eschewed Bizet’s pianissimo on the Flower Song’s high b-flat, but sang with great passion throughout. Michael Mayes was a swaggering, rough-hewn Escamillo who may lack sophistication but has no doubts of his appeal to every woman on stage.

Angela Mortellaro sang Micaela sweetly but sometimes too powerfully for the intimate Central City opera house. Tyler Putnam was a smooth and effective Zuniga. The smugglers portrayed by apprentice artists Heidi Middendorf, Kira Dills-DeSurra and Nathan Ward, and studio artist Armando Contreras, joined Pulley for a delightful turn with the tricky, quicksilver Act Three quintet.

The stage direction by Jose Maria Condemi was full of ideas and inventions. Many were effective touches enhancing characterization, especially of smaller roles. Some were distracting, and the intimate pantomime by Carmen and Don José preceding Act Three, designed to cover the time between acts, clashed with the action immediately following.

Conductor Adam Turner got a bright, colorful sound from the CCO orchestra throughout, from the splash of sound that opened the Prelude to the dramatic ending. He pushed tempos toward, but not beyond, the limits of singers and players, making for an exhilarating afternoon in the theater.

Opening last Saturday, July 15, and continuing through Aug. 4, the production of Così fan tutte takes its cue from the opera’s subtitle: the school for lovers. By placing it in a Victorian-era boarding school, the production appropriately brings out the youth and inexperience of the lovers; it creates wonderful opportunities for humor, and it appeals to the Victorian vogue stoked by Downton Abbey.

In this context, Don Alfonso is a fusty professor teaching a needful lesson. Despina is a “house-mistress” whose cynicism comes from years of exasperation with the follies of adolescents. And the four lovers, described in the program as “students” who are “dating,” are clearly in the throes of self-dramatizing first love.

This setting fits Così perfectly and renders Alfonso’s sensible lesson — no one is perfect, so we all must accept our lovers as they are — clearer than usual. Much has been made of the plot’s absurdities, but opera is not principally about plot; it is about emotions expressed in music, and that Così has in abundance: pride, love, despair, jealousy, anger.

The Central City cast conveyed this interpretation wonderfully. As Alfonso, Patrick Carfizzi sang with solidity of tone and the assurance of a long-suffering professor with a lesson to teach. I loved Megan Marino’s Despina, a clear-toned soprano who even projects through a surgical mask.

As Fiordiligi, CCO debutante Hailey Clark earned the audience’s affection. She handled the extreme registers and daunting leaps of the soprano-slaying aria “Come scoglio” with aplomb, if not total evenness of tone, and was perfectly heart-rending in her later aria, “Per pietà.”

Tamara Gura was an affecting Dorabella, singing with a darker color that distinguished her from her steelier sister. She didn’t just sing her signature aria, “Smanie implacabili,” she embodied it.

Of the men, David Adam Moore made a strong impression as Guglielmo, portraying his self-proclaimed “advantage” with assured voice and characterization. Matthew Plenk brought a robust tenor to Fernando, occasionally forcing the sound but singing with the urgency of an adolescent lover.

Using a turntable and projections, Andrew D. Edwards’s set ingeniously turned a lecture theater into dormitory and garden. Stephen Barlow’s subtle and inventive direction was one of the joys of the performance: I didn’t want to take my eyes off the stage. Most remarkably, he brought out complex and changing feelings among the four lovers, to the provocative and unexpected ending. John Baril conducted Mozart’s glorious music with sensitivity.

This Così is a perfect fit for Central City’s intimate theater. A delight from beginning to end, it is not to be missed by anyone who loves Mozart, or opera.

On the Bill:

Central City Opera presents: Carmen. 2:30 p.m.: July 22, 26, 30, Aug. 3, 6; 8 p.m.: July 20, 28; Aug. 1

Così fan tutte. 2:30 p.m.: July 23, 25, 19, Aug. 2, 4; 8 p.m.: July 21, 27. Central City Opera House, 124 Eureka St., Central City, 303-292-6700.

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