United States Bizet, Carmen: LA Opera, Placido Domingo (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 21.9.2013-6.10.13 (JRo)
One of the most iconic characters in opera is the fiercely independent and willful Carmen, drawn from the pages of Prosper Mérimée’s nineteenth century novel. Prizing freedom above all else, she’s willing to die to preserve that freedom. A modern woman in every sense, Carmen loves as she pleases with the kind of sexual zeal found only in male characters from the literature of the period. It was puzzling then to find Patricia Bardon’s Carmen, in the LA Opera’s first production of their 2013-14 season, to be sexually reserved: more swagger than seduction, more teenager in love than full blooded woman on the prowl.
I suspect this was a directorial problem, since similar criticism was leveled at Viktoria Vizin’s characterization in LA Opera’s 2008 version of the same production of director Emilio Sagi’s original for Madrid’s Teatro Real.
Restraint seemed to be the operative word for this overly tasteful “Carmen:” restraint in singing, acting, and set design. One longed for sexual abandon, rough and tumble streets, and the air of pervasive doom that characterizes the best productions.
Not that there were scenic problems – the cigarette factory and surrounding Seville neighborhood of Act One were appropriately Mediterranean, though I did long for orange trees rather than palms. And though it felt more LA upscale shopping center than torrid Southern Spain, it was a set that showed off the marvelous Los Angeles Opera chorus of soldiers, cigarette girls, and neighborhood children to strong effect. In fact, it was the chorus throughout that brought the staggeringly beautiful music of George Bizet to pulsing, vibrant life, accompanied by Los Angeles Opera’s consummate musicians under the direction of Maestro Domingo. Of particular beauty was the moody and lush orchestral opening to Act Three.
The proceedings heated up a bit in Act Two at Lillas Pastia’s tavern and the contributions of the choreographer Nuria Castejón and her associate choreographer, Fernández, should not go unremarked. The dancers, performing a version of ballet-laced flamenco, added gaiety and color to both Acts Two and Four. The only negative were their overly loud, stomping feet that added a percussive element, which threatened to overpower the singers. As for the costumes by Jesús del Pozo, they sometimes worked against the characters: the soldiers’ uniforms looked more like contemporary formal attire with tails than military dress, while Micaëla’s oversized pilgrim’s coat in Act Three threatened to swallow her whole.
Brandon Jovanovich as Don José, the victim of Carmen’s love, was at his best when in thrall to his jealous anger. The role requires a high level of acting skill, since Don José must move quickly in Act One from indifference to passion. Then the passion must build at a rapid pace in Act Two, since it quickly culminates in José’s defiance of his captain, and his subsequent desertion. Though a physically attractive Don José, Jovanovich’s love for Carmen appeared tepid, only igniting when he was able to vent his fury on Carmen in the third and fourth acts. After slow starts from both Bardon and Jovanovich, their singing grew in power in the third and fourth acts. It seemed as if their inability to render their sexual longing for each other was allowed to burst out in their later, angry confrontations. Though not the traditional sweet voiced tenor, Jovanovich sang the “Flower Song” with a polished luster and refinement.
The revelation of the evening was the ravishing soprano of Pretty Yende as Micaëla. She embodied the character’s sweetness and determination in both voice and manner. While the character of Micaëla is often overshadowed by the turbulence around her, Yende, through voice and bearing, was able to firmly implant Micaëla and her love for Jose in our consciousness.
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Escamillo sang and acted his part with gusto. Hae Ji Chang as Frasquita and Cassandra Zoé Velasco as Mercedes were a delight, particularly in their enchanting duet of Act Three Scene One. As Zuniga, Valentin Anikin was assertive but a bit wooden, his dark voice occasionally swallowed by the hall. Daniel Armstrong, Keith Jameson, and Museop Kim completed the cast and put in solid performances.
For a wall-to-wall, deliriously melodic score, nothing beats Bizet’s “Carmen.” Though love and lust didn’t take precedence in this production, nothing can dampen the thrill of hearing this music live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.