A Stunning Carmen at Seattle Opera

United StatesUnited States Bizet, CarmenSeattle Opera, Soloists, Orchestra, Pier Giorgio Morandi (conductor), McCaw Hall, Seattle, 15/28.10.2011 (BJ)


Director: Bernard Uzan
Sets: R. Keith Brumley
Costumes: James Schuette
Lighting designer: Donald Edmund Thomas
Hair and makeup designer: Joyce Degenfelder
Choreography: Peggy Hickey
Chorus director: Beth Kirchhoff
Musical preparation: Philip A. Kelsey, David McDade, and Jay Rozendaal


Moralès: Joseph Lattanzi
Micaëla: Norah Amsellem/Caitlin Lynch
Don José: Luis Chapa/Fernando de la Mora
Zuniga: Donovan Singletary
Carmen: Anita Rachvelishvili/Malgorzata Walewska
Frasquita: Amanda Opuszynski
Mercédès: Sarah Larsen
Escamillo: Michael Todd Simpson
Remendado: Andrew Stenson
Dancaïre: David Krohn
Principal Dancer: Lisa Gillespie

Bernard Uzan, whose new Carmen for Seattle Opera ran through the second half of October, can certainly not be accused of one-size-fits-all directorial methods. As the disparity between the thrilling naturalism of Pagliacci in 2008 and the somewhat inchoate abstraction of Macbeth two years earlier illustrated, the gifted Frenchman’s response to the operas he stages tends to be admirably specific and sharply individual.

No exception, this Carmen in its turn offers a brilliantly imaginative and utterly compelling blend of naturalistic elements with touches of often quite magical stylization. The only major false note – the idea of having the officer Zuniga, on his capture by the gypsies, not led off under guard but summarily executed – added a gratuitous level of nastiness to an already morally challenging plot (and it was hardly consistent with “trusting the text,” which Uzan cites as a basis of his directing work.)

But everything else, from dance sequences like the graceful interplay of soldiers and cigarette girls at the start to the desperate Don José’s act of murder at the end, told the story of the ill-fated title character with exemplary clarity and suitably excruciating vividness.

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G.Bizet, Carmen,
C.Abbado, / LSO
P.Domingo, I.Cotrubas, S.Milnes et al.

More than most operas, Carmen depends for its success on the quality of its leading lady, and this production was graced by performers of major talent in both casts. On opening night, Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili, in her Seattle debut, fashioned a portrayal of stunning power. There is something about her facial expressions, her style of singing (and speaking), and her way of holding herself from which we learn that this Carmen is who she is and not just someone else’s idea of who she is. Her first aria, the sultry Habanera, was curiously disjointed of line and failed to make its usual effect, but if this was due to first night nerves, they were swiftly banished, and from then on we were treated to a glorious outpouring of impassioned and cleanly focused tone. A shade less individual in characterization, Malgorzata Walewski’s Carmen perhaps resembled more the traditional idea of the vamp, but within the framework of that conception her portrayal was consistent and convincing; she moved (and danced) well; and she made more of the insistent chromatic line of that first aria.

Of the two Mexican tenors in their respective casts, Luis Chapa sang strongly as Don José, who is not so much a hero as a plaything of destiny. He projected, too, just the nebbish air of indecision that makes José putty in Carmen’s hands – no competition, character-wise, for the sexy and vocally impressive Escamillo and Zuniga of Michael Todd Simpson and Donovan Singletary. As the production’s second Don José, Fernando de la Mora showed us a man who was less of a pushover, which made the dynamic between him and Carmen less subtle in the early stages of the story but conversely increased the credibility of his later self-assertion. Vocally, moreover, he is one of the most richly gifted operatic tenors I have encountered in a long time: this is a voice of voluptuous tone and at times startling power. It was good to the last drop, with not a trace of tightness at the top or of strain even at the end of the evening.

The clear-eyed courage of Norah Amsellem’s Micaëla made her much more than merely the nice girl next door, and the other Micaëla, Caitlin Lynch, matched up well both dramatically and vocally to her more experienced colleague: there was an attractively Gallic tinge to her tone, and she needs only to develop a somewhat stronger sense of verbal coloration to establish herself as a singer to reckon with. The rest of the cast provided exemplary support on both nights, with admirably vivid characterizations from Joseph Lattanzi as the would-be seductive Moralès, from David Krohn and Andrew Stenson as the two lead bandits, and from Amanda Opuszynski and Sarah Larsen as their molls. There was polished orchestral playing under Pier Giorgio Morandi’s baton, with caressing solos from the Seattle Symphony’s new principal flute, Demarre McGill, and crisp work from Beth Kirchhoff’s chorus. Enhanced by R. Keith Brumley’s efficient set (originally created for Lyric Opera of Kansas City), James Schuette’s equally sensible costumes, and Donald Edmund Thomas’s atmospheric lighting, which used a followspot to fine effect in setting Carmen off from the rest of her world, the total effect of this Carmen was of a rare and dramatically overwhelming cohesion.

Bernard Jacobson