United States Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Cincinnati Opera, Marc Piollet (conductor), Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, 15.6.2014 (RDA)
Carmen, Stacey Rishoi; Don José, William Burden; Escamillo, Daniel Okulitch; Micaela, Laquita Mitchell; with Nathan Stark, Aaron Blake, Sumner Thompson, Alexandra Schoeny, Elizabeth Pojanowski, Joseph Lattanzi.
Conductor, Marc Piollet; Stage Director, Alain Gauthier; Scenic Designer, Allen Charles Klein; Costume Designer, Dean Brown.
When Carmen premiered in Paris in 1875, the opening performance was plagued by all sorts of setbacks, including a capricious prima donna and a prickly bunch of choristers who could not understand why they were being asked to sing and act at the same time. Bizet himself died during the initial run and never got to see what was to become not only his most successful opera, but one of the most widely performed works in the canon.
In Carmen the chorus – here superbly prepared by veteran chorus master Henry Venanzi – gets to do some heavy lifting as both singers and actors in all four acts. Happily, the quartet of Carmen’s partners in smuggling and petty crime are here nimbly acted and sung by Alexandra Schoeny, Elizabeth Pojanowski, Aaron Blake and Sumner Thompson. The authoritative Zuniga of bass Nathan Stark and the charming Morales of baritone Joseph Lattanzi make a nice impression in their brief though key assignments.
Then there are the three leading roles of Escamillo (baritone), Micaela (soprano) and the notoriously difficult tenor part of Don José, the simple Basque soldier recently arrived in Seville and fated – as much of the male population of that city – to fall head over heels for the spitfire gypsy with a day job in a cigarette factory and a night job in contraband. Daniel Okulitch dispatches Escamillo’s couplets stylishly and then returns later to do an impressive navaja fight. With deep expressivity, soprano Laquita Mitchell sings the Act I duet with the young man she hopes to marry one day. As Don José, tenor William Burden is excellent in the lyrical moments that abound in his part, especially in his show-stopping Flower Song, and in Act IV, dramatically powerful in his crazed encounter with Carmen outside the bullfight ring.
The title role calls for a seasoned singer – a mezzo-soprano with a solid technique, suppleness in the mid-range, a knock-‘em-dead upper voice, a velvety lower register, vocal agility and plenty of power. And she must be a good actress, convincing as a free-spirited gypsy in her early twenties (as in Mérimée’s novel), sexually alluring, and good to look at. Stacy Rishoi sings and acts her role with commitment and with attention to details in text and music, meeting all of its demands head-on. Hers is not a Carmen that will now keep company with the many great singers who have sung this role – not yet. But the promise of fine things to come is already there, in what is probably her first time in the role.
The production is straightforward, by-and-large unencumbered by directorial excess, save for the inexplicable presence of two guitar-playing nuns in Lilas Pastias’ tavern in Act II, which in 1800’s Seville would have brought about derision if not excommunication.
Marc Piollet at first conducts some of the passages at warp speed, and, in so doing encounters coordination issues between stage and pit, although by the end of Act I things settled down quite nicely. Allen Charles Klein is responsible for the serviceable set and Dean Brown for the workaday costumes.
Rafael de Acha