Carmen is superb, show isn't

March 21, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Carmen of Prosper Merimee's novel is an inscrutable, sensual she-wolf, seen through the eyes of Don Jose, who is himself portrayed as a heroic bandit. Onstage, in Bizet's great opera, these characters take on the illusions and the atmospheres of the eras and the regions in which they have been performed. French Carmens tend to be cool and detached; Italians, brutal and passionate; Spanish Carmens, elegant as they are sensual.

And the settings tend to reflect the zeitgeist of the age. In the revolutionary 1960s, the opera was set during the Spanish Civil War by the New York City Opera. In Moscow in the period after the 1917 Revolution, Carmen was played as a Polish Jew stabbed to death after a fiery panegyric on communism. "Carmen" is Shakespearean in its capacity to absorb so many performing styles successfully.

But "Carmen" barely survived the muddle-headed production that it received from the Baltimore Opera Company Thursday night at the Lyric Opera House. This production, an import from the Minnesota Opera, seems to want to place "Carmen" in the 1950s. At least that is the impression left by the first act. But the second act (in the Tavern of Lillas Pastia) seems to take place in a 1970s disco, replete with psychedelic lights, in which the behavior of the female principals and chorus members is of the promiscuous sort that could be found in glittery strip bars.

Stylistically, the staging was all over the map. The bare sets and lighting -- the use of shadow and light in this production was not easy on the eye -- seemed to want to re-create the film-noir atmosphere of the late '40s and early '50s, but was actually closer to some of the effects created by experimental theater in the 1930s. The theatrical self-consciousness of this production -- the chorus was often seated on stage to observe the action -- suggested the Brechtian metatheatrics of the 1950s that came to the West in the 1960s in shows like Peter Brooks' production of Peter Weiss' "Marat-Sade."

If this "Carmen" sounds confused, it was. For almost all its first half, it made one think of nothing so much as a performance conceived by a pretentious and untalented bunch of high school kids.

That this "Carmen" survived can be ascribed to the greatness of the music and to a performance of the title role, by the Moldavian mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura, so remarkable that it brought to life a production that would have been otherwise moribund.

Mishura's conception -- pugnacious, alluring and strewn with muttering and growls -- was close to Merimee's original. Her magnificently sung "Habanera" was rough and sexy; her "Seguilladas" exploited register changes violently but artistically -- when this woman drops into her lowest register, knees become weak. It was the greatest conception of the role this listener has heard in a theater: compulsive, totally self-absorbed, often frighteningly repellent and completely irresistible.

Mishura was partnered by the young tenor Cesar Hernandez, whose impassioned, full-voiced Don Jose suggests a huge future. Pamela South sang Micaela with a large soprano that occasionally became cutting and strident in its highest register.

Greer Grimsley was an impressive-looking but unimpressive-sounding Escamillo: His voice doesn't have the top notes that the role demands, and his legato was a muddied smear. In smaller roles, Robin Follman (Frasquita), Nicole Biondo (Mercedes), Kristopher Irmiter (Zuniga) and John Daniecki (Remendado) sang well, and Daniel Mobbs was impressive enough as Dancairo to make one wish he had been singing Escamillo.

Conductor Alfredo Silipigni's often leaden and wayward tempos helped neither Bizet nor his singers.

Bizet's 'Carmen'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 110 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: Today, 8: 15 p.m.; tomorrow, 3 p.m.; Wednesday, 7: 30 p.m., Friday, 8: 15 p.m.; Saturday, 8: 15 p.m.; and March 29, 3 p.m.

Tickets: $22-$100

Call: 410-727-6000

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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