New London - Like attendants at a birthing ceremony, 350 people poured into the First Congregational Church Friday to take a peek at the Connecticut Lyric Opera's premiere production of Bizet's "Carmen." And, after the final tragic note cascaded from the rafters, the crowd rose to its feet, pronouncing the local company not only alive and well but beautiful to boot.

Featuring the pared-down but scintillating Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, masterfully conducted by Adrian Mackiewicz, who also serves as the opera company's artistic director, this production of "Carmen" included not only professional opera singers - most of them from this area - but also adult and children's choruses made up of local singers of exceptional quality. More than a few of the singers shared the same last name, suggesting that Connecticut Lyric Opera has become a family affair.

It's no wonder, then, that mezzo-soprano Monika Krajewska, in the saucy title role of Carmen, happens to be married to Mackiewicz, the conductor, or that soprano Jurate Svedaite-Waller, as the sweet Micaela, is the wife of the opera's producer, John Waller. That these two singers turned in the most exceptional performances of the night certainly bodes well for future shows.

Krajewska, all wayward curls and gypsy attitude, brought a soaring lyricism to her part, handling the top and bottom ranges with equal aplomb. Her timbre rich and earthy, she proves the perfect Carmen: passionate and cool, lovable and hateful. If she could stretch a bit with her acting, she could truly own the part.
Svedaite-Waller, Carmen's competitor for the lowly soldier Don Jose, truly inspires with her interpretation of Micaela. Her crystalline voice portends the tragedy yet to come with delicate clarity and sumptuous phrasing.

Baritone Maksim Ivanov, as Escamillo, another of Carmen's lovers, adds his strong voice to the mix, shining particularly in the famous "Toreador" song.
Local opera lovers will remember him from recent performances with the Stonington-based Salt Marsh Opera, and his acting has improved since then, under the tutelage of stage director David Black, a Tony Award-winning producer and director who also has worked with Ivanov at Salt Marsh.

In smaller parts, bass-baritone Laurentiu Rotaru, as Zuniga; baritone John Salvi as Morales/Dancairo; mezzo-soprano Margaret Tyler as Mercedes; tenor Benjamin Davidson as Remendado, and soprano Phred Mileski as Frasquita (Angela Ahyskal will sing the part today when the performance is reprised at 3 p.m. at Trinity-On-Main in New Britain) all turned in wonderful performances.

The only small disappointment came in the choice of Aaron Estes as Don Jose, one of the central figures in this most tuneful of operas. While Estes has an excellent acting range, his big voice still needs some work. It sounds pinched, especially in the higher parts. This usually indicates someone who lets part of his sound escape through his nostrils, and indeed, if you listened closely, a nasal quality affected his tone.

As for the production itself, it was hampered somewhat by the confines of the church. The supertitles, for instance, were projected on a small screen to the left of the audience, but singers passing that area sometimes blocked the translations. Without a curtain to pull up and no scenery to speak of (a black backdrop covered part of the makeshift stage), singers had to amble on stage at the beginning of different acts and then wait, stone-like, for the orchestral parts to fade away before starting their scenes.

But the company did a good job with what it had, striding down the church's aisles to make dramatic entrances and using its colorful costumes to dramatic effect. Certainly, though, Connecticut Lyric Opera hopes to improve on its first production, as it says in its notes, "with the full support of the community.
"What you may find lacking in this evening's production," according to the program notes, "is exactly what we need you to help us with in the future if we are to become one of the beacons of culture in the community that we aspire to."

Now that a new opera has officially been born, no doubt a few of the attendants Friday night will step forward to take this babe in their arms and offer encouragement for years to come.

Originally Published on 5/2/2004. © The Day Publishing Co., 2004.