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OPERA REVIEW: ‘La Rondine’

The opening performance Friday of Fresno Grand Opera’s “La Rondine” was a significant milestone for the company. Why? Not for the title or the singing (which was first-rate by the amiable and impassioned Rebecca Davis and Chad A. Johnson in the leading roles) — but for the venue. “La Rondine” marks the first time Fresno Grand Opera has presented a fully staged production in the 750-seat Shaghoian Hall. That’s a much smaller space than the much larger¬†Saroyan Theatre, where the company has performed for more than a decade.

So it was with anticipation — and some trepidation — that I attended the performance. The beautiful new hall, acclaimed for its acoustics, promises a chance for a warm and intimate experience well suited to this tender, smaller-scale gem by Giocomo Puccini. But it also poses a challenge in terms of producing a fully staged work. With a much smaller stage than the Saroyan, no orchestra pit and no way of ¬†flying in scenery, my gut feeling was it would be harder to put a sense of “Grand” in a Fresno Grand Opera production there.

My verdict? Mostly positive. This “La Rondine,” which closes Sunday with a matinee performance, has some wonderful musical and dramatic moments. Veteran artistic director Joseph Bascetta is a consummate pro, and his concept for the production and his meticulous yet fluid staging are inspired (marred only by some lackluster dancing by the chorus). And the Italian-born conductor Valerio Galli, in his American debut, offered a clean, precise and even jaunty interpretation of the score that still offered a swell of romanticism. But the scenic and lighting design — and the balance between orchestra and singers on opening night — left a little to be desired. I think the company has some room for improvement when it comes to using this space to present the top-notch regional opera productions its loyal audiences have come to expect.

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Wow. That Carmen sure knows how to slink out of an apron.

Irene Roberts provided much of the sizzle in Fresno Grand Opera’s accomplished production of “Carmen,” which steamed up the Saroyan Theatre in two performances over the weekend. The mezzo soprano, in fine voice, was as sultry as all get-out in the Sunday matinee I attended, particularly in her intensive cat-and-mouth sensual moves on the smitten Don Jose (a slow-burn Brian Jagde, also impressive vocally) in the second act. With her trademark red skirts swishing and those eagerly anticipated castanets clicking, her body language was sexy as all get out. But there was much more to her characterization than mere lusty temptress, however. She found a hard-edged core to her character that felt positively empowering. Even as Carmen marched toward her tragic end, she went down fighting.

All of which helped make this “Carmen” an intriguing blend of sex and steely determination. It managed to be both hot and downright chilly. I thought it was first-rate.

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OPERA REVIEW: ‘Rigoletto’

Directors love to tinker with the time period and setting of classic operas. Many of these versions are yawners — superficial attempts to slap a thin veneer of stylized costumes and sets on top of the same old storyline.

But some updatings breathe a sense of fire and vitality into a work. That’s the case with Fresno Grand Opera’s thoroughly smart and effective “Rigoletto,” which continues 2 p.m. Sunday at the Saroyan Theatre. Stage director Joseph Bascetta sets this beloved Verdi classic in 1940 Fascist Italy — a time saturated with a palpable excitement about impending conflict. (Whipping one’s self into a militaristic frenzy about going to war, with all the attendant pomp and swagger of anticipation, is inherently more satisfying than actually getting shot at.) Bascetta’s vision is bold and effective, and I consider it much more successful for the company than its initial venture in updating a title with “La Boheme.” The strong production design and towering performances by Gaetan Laperriere and Raul Melo, its two leading men, make this a memorable “Rigoletto” indeed.

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