Getting to dramatic heart of `Carmen'

Review: Peabody Chamber Opera's production was imperfect but intense.

Classical Music

February 05, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Popular operas can become calcified. People know the plots and the tunes so well that they really don't think much about either. This may help explain why noted stage director Peter Brook decided to deconstruct Bizet's Carmen.

La Tragedie de Carmen, introduced in Paris in the early 1980s, was Brook's attempt to boil the original opera down to its bare essentials. Forget the colorful costumes, Spanish sets, large cast, full orchestra. For that matter, forget a lot of the music - there are abundant cuts and alternations. What mattered most to Brook was the intense drama at the heart of the opera: the hypnotic power of Carmen, the impulsive behavior of Don Jose, and the doomed nature of their love affair.

Peabody Chamber Opera offered a sizzling production of La Tragedie de Carmen over the weekend in the intimate space of the Theatre Project. Occasionally, it was obvious that this was a student effort, but the venture had an overall drive and intensity that gave it considerable weight.

Director John Lehmeyer poured on the sex and violence; Brook's version has a more volatile and lethal Don Jose than Bizet's. (It was enough to send one unsuspecting parent and her children fleeing midway through Friday night's performance.) All the gyrating and knifing drove home just how earthy this story really is.

Israel Lozano as Don Jose underlined that earthiness in an alternately brooding and explosive portrayal. The young tenor really wouldn't have had to act much; his voice did an enormous amount of acting on its own. This was singing of exceptional promise and power, with an electric charge to top notes and a consistently involved approach to phrasing. Lozano pushed his warm, rich tone too hard at times - in such a small space, more subtlety should have been easy - but it's hard to complain. He is a first-rate tenor in the making.

Laura Virella's Carmen couldn't have been much more sensual without inviting a police raid, but her vocalism was technically inconsistent and tonally undernourished. Ryan de Ryke, as Escamillo, scored points for dynamic contrasts in the "Toreador Song," but his voice needed more bloom. Although Sara Stewart came up a little short in acting and high notes, her Micaela had telling moments.

Conductor Benjamin Loeb generated a mostly clean response from the chamber orchestra. Lehmeyer's minimalist set - a few tables, chairs, a jukebox - and black costumes fit Brook's provocative concept neatly.

Engaging `America'

Continuing its enticing "Journey to America" Saturday at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra revived some scores by immigrants known primarily as conductors: Walter Damrosch, one of the most important figures in New York's operatic and symphonic circles during the early decades of the 20th century; and Serge Koussevitsky, whose 25 years as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra remain a benchmark of innovation and inspiration.

Koussevitsky's Concerto for Double Bass from 1902 is deftly crafted to exploit the considerable melodic and virtuosic possibilities of the instrument. The tunes may not be terribly original (lots of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky), but they are imaginatively developed.

NSO principal bassist Robert Oppelt brought a brilliant combination of technical and expressive talents to the performance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and was well-supported by his colleagues in the orchestra and conductor Leonard Slatkin.

An Abraham Lincoln Song, a setting of Walt Whitman's "O captain, my captain," reveals Damrosch's compositional skills. Occasionally mundane passages are redeemed by a vivid sense of atmosphere, enforced both by the solo lines and, especially, the choral writing. The ending - the sound of Taps played in the distance - may be an obvious gesture, but it was remarkably effective. Baritone Vladimir Shvets and the Washington Chorus did excellent work as Slatkin shaped an involving account of the piece.

The program also contained concertos that didn't exactly fit the festival theme of musical immigration: Samuel Barber's all-American Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. (Well, the latter had its first performance in Boston).

Judith Ingolfsson, the assured soloist for the Barber work, had sweet tone and ever-elegant phrasing. Mia Chung took a fascinating, often very slow approach to the Tchaikovsky warhorse. The pianist avoided mannerisms as she explored darker, deeper elements in the music. It was a serious, even noble performance, and it enjoyed superb partnering from Slatkin.

The NSO, which was in vibrant, mostly dead-on form all evening, also performed two more of the many arrangements of the national anthem being featured in the festival. Eugene Ormandy's lush version made a particularly strong impression.

Mentzer at Goucher

Baltimore doesn't get nearly enough vocal recitals, which makes this weekend's appearance by mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer all the more welcome. The Metropolitan Opera regular will give a one-hour concert, followed by a question-and-answer session, at 7 p.m. Sunday at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium.

Mentzer's recital marks the 42nd annual presentation in the Henry and Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Lecturer-Performer series at Goucher. Admission is free with advance tickets from the Goucher box office, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road.

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