‘Carmen.’ It’s big. Really big.

As Portland Opera heads toward a small-scale future, a brassy Bizet reminds audiences that the company will continue to play big, too.

Ninety-four. That’s the magic number. Ninety-four performers onstage at Keller Auditorium, counting 11 named characters, a couple of flamenco dancers, a chorus the size of Montana, and a sprinkling of supernumeraries. That doesn’t include the 60-odd musicians in the orchestra pit, driving the action under George Manahan’s brisk and lively tempos in Portland Opera’s latest production of Georges Bizet’s sizzling potboiler Carmen. The tale of the sensuous cigarette-factory worker and her fatal attractions opened to a packed house on Friday night, and has three more performances – tonight, Thursday, and Saturday – before resting once more (oh, so temporarily!) in peace.

This Carmen is big and vivid and glorious to look at, and it fills the 3,000 seats of the cavernous conundrum that is the Keller with seeming ease. Not all of the voices are huge, but they carry well in a notoriously difficult auditorium, filling it with spectacle, or maybe cutting it down to size. You can read Angela Allen’s illuminating background piece for ArtsWatch here, and James McQuillen’s perceptive review for The Oregonian here.

Katrina Galka (left) as Frasquita, Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen, Angela Niederloh (right) as Mercedes at Portland Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Katrina Galka (left) as Frasquita, Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen, Angela Niederloh (right) as Mercedes at Portland Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

So how, you might be wondering, does an all-stops-pulled extravaganza like this fit into Portland Opera’s plans to reinvent itself as a chamber-sized opera company, presenting its productions festival-style in a summer season? That’ll start next year, when the company produces half or more of its shows in the much more intimate, 880-seat Newmark Theatre, a move that will radically alter the relationship between performers and audience, and presumably will also reshape the sorts of operas being produced. Twentieth and 21st century fare, Baroque operas, smaller-scale and more theatrical works, experimental operas, operas outside the warhorse canon might well come to the fore. That’s an exciting prospect.

But this Carmen is a healthy reminder that roughly half of the opera’s season won’t be performed in the Newmark: two shows each season will stay in the vast and tricky reaches of the Keller. And it’s good to be reminded that, when the company approaches the Keller smartly and imaginatively and with the proper resources, that isn’t a bad thing.

I have a quibble or two about this production, mainly about the relationships among the ill-fated lovers: theatrically, Chad Shelton’s Don José seems cowed by Sandra Piques Eddy’s sensual powerhouse of a Carmen, as if he’s afraid of her, which makes it tough to buy her attraction to him, and makes her throwing-over of him for the swaggering toreador Escamillo seem an inevitability rather than a tragedy. But that’s a matter of interpretation, and in other ways stage director Eric Einhorn keeps the three hours flowing swiftly and involvingly. What makes this production work (besides the undeniable appeal of the music and story, which together make Carmen the gateway drug of operas) is the richness of the production, a traditional but beautiful work of visual imagination ignited by Eddy’s prowling, nervy, physically unshackled performance as Carmen. Paul Shortt’s towering scenic designs, Eduardo V. Sicango’s exuberant costumes, and Shawn Kaufman’s savvy lighting combine to say: This is how you do this thing. This is what opera’s about.

Musical theater will become a regular attraction of the “new” Portland Opera (we’ve seen a Pirates of Penzance recently, and Show Boat is coming up in May), and that brings its own opportunities and challenges. Pirates, for instance, took on water partly because of how it used amplification in the Keller, a problem that doesn’t exist for Carmen and other mainstream operas, in which voices simply aren’t amplified, ever. On the other hand, there are great musicals, and operettas, and frankly admitting them to the performance mix as part of the spectrum both broadens the company’s audience base and emphasizes that it’s all musical theater, from Siegfried to South Pacific.

I can imagine Carmen, with its kinship to the theatrical traditions of the Broadway musical, playing even more effectively in the more intimate and actor-friendly Newmark. But old favorites will remain part of the company’s mix – and most likely in the Keller, a hall whose dimensions demand a certain grandeur. The shows there are likely to remain most seasons’ big draws; the popular, beyond-the-core-audience attractions. And with only two a season, they’re likely to become big events, which means they can’t afford to be slapdash. Intriguingly, going small could also help elevate the quality of the few shows that remain big.

Aficionados may well gravitate to the smaller stage and the intrigue of its hopefully riskier projects. That’s good. A few dynamically produced traditional favorites in the big barn (or more ambitious big-scale operas rarely done here), performed as likably as this Carmen, should help balance the repertoire – and, as importantly, the books. Ninety-four well-deployed bodies can have a very big impact.

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