Staging of 'Carmen' lacks sizzle

November 13, 1997|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In opera, as in the laboratory, chemistry is everything.

When the leads mesh musically and dramatically, melodies soar, emotions bubble over, and the passion of grand opera leaps off the stage to enfold and dazzle the audience.

And when they don't, you get a production like the "Carmen" presented last weekend by the Annapolis Opera.

Yes, there was color.

Most of the leads could sing.

There were snappy interludes such as the marvelous Act II quintet in which Carmen professes her love for Don Jose, the hapless soldier about to be destroyed by his passion for the fickle Gypsy girl.

But one left the theater aware that the chemistry was off, that few sparks had flown and that an opera, unlike a bagel, does not take proper shape when there's a hole in its middle.

That hole, sorry to say, was tenor Peter Emery, who, despite glowing credentials, turned out to be a pale, utterly uninvolving Don Jose. His voice is small, with no ardent ring whatsoever. His fatalistic "Goodbye" at the end of Act II was swallowed, and he was completely overwhelmed by baritone Robert Cantrell in their confrontational duet in Act III. Mix in some slack acting, and you get even more scenes that fizzled when they should have sizzled.

Better things came from Jennifer Hines in the title role. Her voice is seamless throughout the mezzo range. Her "Habanera" had some lilt to it, and she sounded like the real thing up there on that tabletop clicking her castanets.

There are many ways to interpret Carmen. Is she merely a conniver? A femme fatale? A wounded innocent looking for love in all the wrong places? I'm not sure Ms. Hines had any overarching conception of the role in mind. She's young, and her characterization has a way to go. A better Jose would also do her a world of good.

The aforementioned Cantrell cut a nice figure as Escamillo, the virile bullfighter who snatches Carmen away from her soldier, however briefly. He is especially stylish in the lower register. His high notes, alas, are represented by the firm of Clench & Wobble.

The best moments came from the supporting female cast. Laura Lewis was a sweet-voiced Micaela (an insipid role, but she sure ** gets great tunes). And there were real fireworks from Carla Del Villaggio and Kyle Engler as Frasquita and Mercedes, the two Gypsies who add so much sex appeal to the second act.

As always, conductor Ronald Gretz kept the pace with authority, though his orchestra could have executed better scene-setting at the openings of Acts I and III. The chorus stumbled at first but got better. The sets and costumes were colorful, and evocative dancing was offered by Leslie Bradley, Natasha Kirjanov and Dmitri Tuboltsev of the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis.

The English translation didn't bother me that much, but I couldn't help recalling Sir Edward Appleton's tart comment: "I do not mind what language an opera is sung in so long as it is a language I don't understand."

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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