Lyric Opera of Virginia’s “jewel box” presentation of the classic opera Carmen brings out an intensity that feels ripped from the newspaper’s blaring headlines. You’ve seen them: WOMAN MURDERED BY EX-HUSBAND. Or ex-boyfriend. Or separated spouse.
The actual status of the relationship doesn’t matter; she has moved on, out of fear or fickleness, to a new life. He’s still stuck, obsessed with her, but it’s all her fault. He ardently proclaims that it’s love, but no — it’s about control: ownership, if you will — so she must die.
Trimming Carmen to a brisk 90 minutes loses some of the Spanish local color and grandeur, but allows the audience a more intimate view of the characters’ fatal flaws.
Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór was brilliant from beginning to end; her rich, dark voice ran the complete emotional and vocal gamut from soaring beauty to grating ferocity. Not even trumpets could muffle its clarity! Neither her singing nor her acting held anything back. She presented an ambitious Carmen, who, like the much-later Evita, was on her way up the social ladder, using her wiles to attract suitable men and bring them to their knees. Don José was not the first, and she gave him fair warning that he wouldn’t be the last.
Jonathan Burton was Don José, the junior police officer obsessed with Carmen. Unmoored from the external structures that had held him together — abandoning his village sweetheart, disobeying orders, forsaking his duty to follow Carmen into the hills with the gypsy smugglers — he became unhinged in a world he wasn’t prepared for and couldn’t belong to. Burton’s nicely developed tenor was just fine for Don José — but he tended to overdo the throbbing just a tad. The great five-note scale of “Carmen, je t’aime” did not benefit from being so overwrought.
To the role of Micaëla, the pure, sweet village girl who tries to bring Don José to his senses, Susanne Vinnick brought a powerful soprano voice —and there’s the rub: in her aria, “I can say that nothing scares me” (a peculiar translation, to boot), Vinnik tended to screech on top notes. Pure, sweet Micaela, who’s supposed to be Carmen’s antithesis, came off as . . . petulant.
Christopher Job was an imposing and confident Escamillo, the glamorous bullfighter Carmen chooses for her next lover. His voice was a shade light, but his bearing was superb, and he moved well, especially when whipping a red tablecloth off a table to demonstrate cape technique. Baritone John Marcus Bindel was believable as Zuniga, Don José’s officer.
Stage director Lillian Groag kept the action moving briskly, especially the sexual byplay of the cigarette girls with the policemen. But her very exceptional gift could become a distraction, as when the interaction between the guards and a boy took the focus off the heat developing between Carmen and Don José. The Boy, well played by Alex Apointe, served his non-singing purpose with vigor — but any Spanish boy that age would definitely know you don’t flap even a pretend cape in front of your body.(Escamillo made the same mistake.) It’s always held off to one side, or you are a dead toreador.
Kyle Lang’s choreography was effective, as was Alan Greene’s lighting design. Gary Prianti’s sparse sets gave the cast lots of room to move around in; two large, curved, moveable partial walls suggested a courtyard, the smuggler’s mountain hideout, and finally the walls of the bullring that turn their backs on Carmen’s fate.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”
Lyric Opera Virginia
To the question asked of me recently: “Can this area support two opera companies?” The answer seems to be a strong “yes.” It helps that Peter Mark has agreed to be Artistic Director Emeritus of Virginia Opera to bring the community back together, tacitly telling opera lovers that they do not need to choose sides.
Lyric Opera of Virginia has announced its second season, opening with the American-themed opera Girl of the Golden West by Giacomo Puccini in September, 2012. Following up their very successful production of The King and I they will present Camelot by Lerner and Loewe in January, 2013. In April, 2013 there will be another “jewel box” production, this time Romeo and Juliet by Charles Gounod.
In what was advertised as a “Jewel Box” production of Carmen the usual unfolding of the story was shortened to a condensed version – ninety minutes versus 170 minutes. You definitely got home earlier but what did you give up for the time saved? The production retained a five-member cast (usually twelve) and an eight-member chorus who filled in some roles as needed, all accompanied by a fourteen piece orchestra.
The story was kept in the original sequence and we hear all the highlight arias sung by most impressive vocalists. The staging was a cross between a musical and the opera we know. The cigarette factory girls have been transformed into belles from a brothel all ready to dance with the handsome soldiers. Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór was part of the stage action for most of the ninety minutes, giving us a dramatic Carmen. After a two-minute overture a dancing chorus comes onstage. Seven minutes into the production Carmen and Don José are at a café table at the back of the stage with lots of stage action and dancing in front of them when she issues her challenge to romance by tossing a flower at his feet.
The Micaëla that arrives is no longer a shy, country girl sent by Don José’s mother but is rather the angel of his better nature competing with Carmen in a full, powerful soprano voice. At the end of their meeting José wants to kiss her but she runs away. This was confusing. Is she now Bizet’s demure country girl or this production’s brassy dame?
After Don José’s incarceration for letting Carmen escape, they are together and finally alone at the tavern. Once again we are distracted, this time stage left by the cute, little boy holding a stick as a gun who is being taught to march by the soldiers. The kid keeps showing up at key moments after an exhilarating tavern dance. Escamillo, the bullfighter arrives and the kid, with a red cloth mines a bull fight. In a shortened version of the story we do not need these distractions. This stage business drained the tension from the drama. The audience is amused by the cute kid while the fierce tension of the two men competing for Carmen is obscured.
The staging definitely weakened the impact of the drama and several hard-core opera buffs have expressed disappointment but the audience that filled the hall for The King and I probably felt right at home. Was that Peter Mark and Lillian Groag’s intent?
With a terrific cast and creative staging, Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical, Camelot, enchanted the audience at the Sandler Center January 11th. Based on T.H. White’s novel, The Sword in the Stone, Camelot tells the tale of Guenevere, King Arthur’s young wife, who comes to love the ebullient Sir Lancelot. Neither can bear to hurt Arthur, whom they love and respect; years go by before their attraction to one another claims them—and Arthur must choose their fate.
Blessed with wonderful tunes and clever lyrics, Camelot was equally blessed with singers. Baritone Peter Kendall Clark played a king led by his heart, not his head, which is why his advisor, the magician Merlin, told him to “think!” Clark brought out Arthur’s vulnerability and his deep love for both Guenevere and Lancelot. His emotional song, “How to handle a woman,” was sung with simplicity and directness.
Marissa McGowan was a lovely, cheerful, but determined Guenevere, with a silvery soprano that rippled from high to low, and back, with confident ease.
Burly, slightly baby-faced baritone Eugene Brancoveanu was a standout as Sir Lancelot, the French knight who comes to join the Round Table, endearingly enumerating his own excellent qualities in “C’est Moi!” his great “I love me” song. Director Greg Ganakas had Lancelot leaping around boldly on treacherous chairs; twice, he teetered alarmingly, and the audience gasped—but he made it through.
The king’s illegitimate son, the scheming Mordred, was well played and sung by John Petersen, overtly charming but bent on destroying Arthur’s idealistic innovations. Arthur had the best line of the play when he said of Mordred, “‘Blood is thicker than water’ was invented by undeserving relatives.”
Merlyn, Arthur’s tutor from childhood who lives “backwards in time,” was sung by John Paul Almon with great glee. Soprano Shannon Jennings was Nimue, Merlyn’s downfall; Jeremiah Johnson, Patrick O’Halloran and Wesley Evans were the three knights who jousted with Lancelot, and lost. (Alas for them, he was that good.) Acrobatic dancers Debbi Fuhrman and Tabb Nance provided energetic transitions.
Donald Eastman’s stage design used a series of ramps and risers, with the orchestra onstage in back of the singers. (I presume conductor Adam Turner had a monitor of some kind so he could see what was going on behind him.) The lively chorus members had a lot of swirling movement, carrying straight-backed chairs from place to place as they became members of the court or spectators at the jousting tournament. Gregory Gale’s rich costumes—modern formal dress overlaid by resplendent court robes—brilliantly mirrored the stage design and the director’s vision.
One major flaw marred the production: every performer was miked, and the volume was amped up to the point of pain. Whoever was controlling the sound board was definitely not on his game on opening night. The orchestra sounded muffled at the beginning. In clinches, singers sang into each other’s body mikes—at different volumes, until that got evened out. A single singer was often louder than the entire chorus. When a principal sang full voice, there was a second or two of distortion before being corrected. This sort of thing went on and on, very loudly.
The singers obviously had the pipes to sing and speak unamplified, and the production would have been a much greater pleasure had they been allowed to do so.
Camelot was planned by Lyric Opera of Virginia but when that company had to forgo production, Virginia Opera stepped in. Bravo to both Lyric Opera of Virginia and Virginia Opera for settling their differences in such a civilized way, to the delighted relief of Hampton Roads audiences.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”