September 28th, 2007 5:33 pm | by Stephen Marc Beaudoin News | Posted In: CLEAN UP

Penn's Rich Voice Saves Thursday Carmen


Everyone loves a Cinderella story. Opera audiences are no exception.

So while Portland Opera's production of the Rossini Cinderella fairy-tale opera, La Cenerentola, is not scheduled to open for another month, there was plenty of fairy-tale magic in the making at last night's performance of Bizet's Carmen.

The occasion was a pretty heady break for the opera's new star: mezzo-soprano Hannah Sharene Penn. A first-year member of the Portland Opera Studio Artist program, Penn was plucked from a supporting role in the opera – she had already given three performances as Carmen's sidekick, Mercedes – and handed a plum performance in the title role on Thursday night, due to a sinus infection by the production's much-touted original star, Jossie Perez. On the backs of tragedies are opportunities created: Perez's illness provided Penn with her West Coast professional opera debut in a principal role.

Penn is a major talent. She's a dark-haired beauty, slim (her first-act costume showed some toned tummy) with big expressive eyes. More importantly, Penn has great singing chops, a natural and unaffected appeal onstage and well, she's got guts. On only a few hours of staging and music rehearsal with the production team, and having never before performed on stage this most emotionally and vocally taxing of roles, Penn offered a richly sung and thoughtful portrayal.

She occasionally rose even higher. The famous “Card Scene” was one example. As Mercedes (gamely filled by San Francisco mezzo Katherine Growdon, also on short rehearsal) and Frasquita (Sharin Apostolou, all atwitter) read of the wealthy fortunes their futures hold, Carmen's tragic card comes up again and again: “La mort, la mort” – “Death, death.” As she repeats the words, Penn drops into that resinous and sexy chamber of her chest voice, chilling the text with a fear-throbbing vibrato. It was one of the most exquisitely sung Card Scenes I've heard.

Of course it's too soon to tell if this could be a signature role for Penn, but she offered much that was admirable. Penn is an intelligent and wonderfully musical singer – attention to text and to phrasing; the range of colors in the voice – but she is not especially sensual. Undoubtedly she'll learn to loosen up her body and acting, too. She does not yet, for instance, move her hips in the most convincing way (an audience member demonstrated in the lobby: “She sounds great as Carmen, but I wish she did more of this,” and gyrated her hips at a fast clip. Note taken.)

It's nice to see the production a second time, and to be reminded of its virtues. Brevity is not one of them. At nearly 3 hours and 45 minutes in Nicolette Molnar's dreadfully paced production, it does not exactly fly by. Be grateful that within those four hears you're treated to such lovely and infrequently heard parts of the opera as the Women's Smoking Chorus, and to the original French dialogue, well-spoken by the cast.

The cast, by the way, performed mostly as they did on opening night: some better (O'Flynn's Micaela was supremely touching), some worse (the band of smugglers struggled mightily with conductor Joseph Colaneri's breakneck ensemble tempi). Richard Troxell is still missing a soft B-flat from his otherwise sweet “Flower Song;” the “Gypsy Dance” is still missing, well, much real dancing; the supertitles are sometimes at odd with the stage.

But the entire cast did one thing quite well: supporting their new star. It's unclear whether Perez will be well enough to return to sing the role in its final Saturday night performance: the company plans to make an announcement sometime Friday. This may have been Penn's only shot with the part for the forseeable future. But while the ovation Penn received from her audience at the opera's end was enthusiastic indeed, the real honor came after the curtain rang down to an eruption from the cast and crew, all cheering their new Carmen.
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