Out & About: A pair of 19th century French masterpieces

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The two top shows on the performing arts calendar share a common theme: They’re both French masterpieces that originated in the 19th century. And curiously, both involve a Gypsy woman with a fatal attraction.

In Portland, Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” is the mainstage production of PORTopera, Maine’s top opera company for nearly a quarter century. Artistic director Dona D. Vaughn returns for her 22nd season with this French masterpiece of love, lust, revenge and murder on July 27 and 29.

Ogunquit Playhouse is currently running a new musical stage version of French novelist Victor Hugo’s epic tale of two outcasts, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” It’s a riveting production that seems destined for Broadway within a few years.

Paula Cole is a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter who will be appearing at Vinegar Hill Music Theatre this Sunday.

‘Carmen’

She’s ba-a-a-a-ck. That’s the word from PORTopera, which will be be returning for its 22nd season next week with two performances of George Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Who is Carmen? She is a beautiful and passionate Gypsy woman, a fiery and flirtacious temptress who loves being the center of attention and won’t let anything or anyone stand in her way. She is the titular character in one of the most popular operas ever written, both in terms of total productions and tickets sold.

The action takes place in various locales in Spain, but the libretto is in French, written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy. English supertitles will be projected on a screen above the stage.

First presented in Paris in 1875, “Carmen” is also one of the most accessible operas, and two of Bizet’s tunes, “Habanera” and “Toreador Song,” have achieved huge and lasting popularity outside the opera house.

This year marks PORTopera’s third production of “Carmen.” The company debuted with Bizet’s masterpiece in 1995 – a Portland cultural milestone that set the tone for a successful venture that’s still going strong. I love this company; I was in the audience for its first performance and have attended every year since then.

Returning for her 22nd season is artistic director Dona D. Vaughn, who boasts vast experience at the helm of dozen of productions in New York and other cities.

The top four members of her 2016 cast are all singers with prior experience at the Metropolitan Opera, the top company in the U.S. The title role will be portrayed by mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani, the first Israeli-born singer to perform a major role at the Met.

Her first lover, a naive soldier, will be played by tenor Adam Diegel, who is singing his third role with PORTopera this year. Soon after their romance begins, he is rejected in favor of a celebrity bullfighter, played by baritone Ed Parks, who is also singing his third role with PORTopera this season.

The fourth principal, a simple village girl, will be sung by soprano Amanda Woodbury, who won the 2014 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Leading a professional orchestra of about 35 will be Stephen Lord, one of several guest conductors who have worked with Vaughn and PORTopera over the years.

PORTopera presents “Carmen” for two 7:30 p.m. performances, July 27 and July 29, at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

Victor Hugo was a 19th-century French author of epic novels, sprawling tales that encompass dozens of characters over a span of decades – not the sort of stories that can easily be adapted to the limitations of the musical stage.

Yet the adaptation of “Les Miserables” turned out to be one of Broadway’s biggest hits in the 1980s. That fate is fervently desired by the developers of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which opened last weekend at Ogunquit Playhouse. They may get their wish; “Hunchback” is a powerful and profoundly moving show.

The stage script was written by Peter Parnell, who simplified and condensed the story to focus on two characters who are both outcasts from French society. Quasimodo, the title character, is a physically deformed bell-ringer at the great cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Esmeralda is a passionate woman who befriends him; as a Gypsy she is the quintessential outsider.

Esmeralda’s physical beauty proves to be fatally attractive, and much of the action derives from her relationships with a soldier who guards the church and an archdeacon of the church, who is also Quasimodo’s uncle and guardian.

Much of the music, by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, was taken from the 1996 Disney animated version, but the duo have written a number of new songs for this new adaptation.

Ogunquit’s “Hunchback” also features one of the largest and most visually powerful sets ever seen on a Maine stage. Adam Koch’s dark and complex timber-framed belfry, with five gigantic moving bells, is simply spectacular.

The three principal characters are also powerfully played, led by F. Michael Haynie’s portrayal of the title character. His uncle and guardian is played by Bradley Dean, who expresses the man’s evil, somewhat mitigated with sympathetic facets.

Sydney Morton is simply electifying as the beautiful Gypsy whose magnetic attraction provides much of the dramatic horsepower that drives “Hunchback,”

Although this version is fully realized and complete, it can also be considered an early tryout version for a Broadway production. There is no timetable for the Broadway debut, but that is clearly the ultimate goal. Maine theatergoers can be proud that Ogunquit Playhouse has snagged an important role to play in that development process.

Ogunquit Playhouse, a mile south of the village on Route 1, presents “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” through Aug. 6. Call 646-5511 or visit OgunquitPlayhouse.org.

Paula Cole

Paula Cole is a singer-songwriter from Rockport, Massachusetts, who has been a figure on the national music scene since 1996, when “This Fire,” her double-platinum sophomore album was released on the Warner label. Featuring two Billboard-charted hits – “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait” – “This Fire” garnered seven Grammy nominations for Cole. She took home one, Best New Artist.

Cole has sold approximately 3 million albums in the past 20 years. Her emotionally deep, thrilling performances, and her poetic, fierce and intelligent writing mark her as a primary color against pastels. Her compositions have been covered by a diverse range of artists, including Herbie Hancock, Annie Lennox and Katherine McPhee.

This Sunday at 8 p.m. Cole will be added to the outstanding lineup of artists who are appearing during this inaugural season of the Vinegar Hill Music Theatre, 53 Old Post Road (just off Route 1) in Arundel. Call 985-5552.

“Carmen” is the 2016 production of PORTopera, which will present Georges Bizet’s masterpiece of French opera July 27 and 29.

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