D.C. opera brandishes Bizet work with aplomb

Scenery and lighting support passionate `Carmen' done with imagination

Opera Review

May 21, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Let us have fantasy, boldness, unexpectedness, enchantment," Georges Bizet once wrote. "Above all, tenderness."

The composer would have found all five qualities - to varying, but always traceable, degrees - Saturday night at the Kennedy Center as the Washington Opera revived its 1995 production of Carmen.

Breathing new life into Bizet's masterpiece, let alone generating boldness and enchantment in the process, requires a lot more than rounding up some good singers and a collection of Spanish fans. It's easy to coast along with this opera in by-the-book fashion - giving Carmen a pushed-up bosom and a ruffly skirt that rides up with wear; putting Escamillo into a splashy toreador outfit and having him strut around.

This venture exudes imagination almost from the get-go. Only the drawing of a sexy couple that hangs from the rafters before the performance begins strikes a false, showbiz-y note. Once this unnecessary prop is replaced by a giant curtain - an abstract design in vivid streaks of orange, red and yellow - Lennart Mork's design takes off and never lets the eye wander.

Mork gets more mileage out of that curtain and another, very subtle one that unfolds at the start of Act 3 to become a twilight sky (talk about enchantment), than other designers get out of mountains of scenery. The scene in the Seville square and the final proceedings outside the bull ring also acquire remarkable freshness from Mork's playful use of color and texture.

Complementing the stage pictures on Saturday was a combination of dynamic vocalism and conducting.

In the pit was Placido Domingo, Washington Opera's indefatigable artistic director (he's singing in the company's production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades on his days off). He doesn't always bring a stamp of authority to the podium, but here he offered firm control, consistent sensitivity and, above all, terrific momentum. His taut approach drove home the relentless gnawing of fate that propels the plot.

It has become popular in recent years to perform Carmen with its original spoken dialogue. But Domingo's choice of the edition with recitatives (composed by someone else after Bizet's death) was made thoroughly persuasive by having cast and orchestra alike deliver those recitatives in potent style.

Jennifer Larmore infused the title role with creamy, evenly produced mezzo tones and thoughtfully detailed phrases.

She was not the most sensual Carmen to hit Seville. Sometimes, Larmore looked downright matronly (Mork's early-1900s costume designs struck earthier notes for some other women in the production), but her characterization became more and more magnetic as the evening progressed.

Fabio Armiliato's portrayal of Don Jose also intensified steadily (at first, the tenor seemed too wimpy to catch Carmen's eye), and his singing gained in passion and color, too. A few unsupported notes aside, this was compelling vocalism.

Enough sparks flew between Larmore and Armiliato to make the opera's doomed love affair register deeply, even tenderly, before exploding.

There was plenty of suavity, in voice and action, from bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen's Escamillo. Virginia Tola, as Micaela, sang with an unpleasant, metallic edge when pushed at the top, but compensation came from the soprano's electric phrasing and her three-dimensional characterization.

The supporting cast proved effective across the board, with particularly vibrant contributions from John Marcus Bindel (Zuniga). Chorus and orchestra also proved reliable.

Stage director Ann-Margret Pettersson coaxed naturalness of movement and expression from the singers and handled crowd scenes with considerable finesse. The soldiers' vulgar advances on Micaela in the first scene went a little over the top, but the rest of that scene unfolded with abundant flair. Pettersson even managed to keep the bit with the children's chorus from turning cutesy.

Little touches, including the burning of Don Jose's military jacket at the close of Act 2 and the stark emptiness of the opera's final moments (the bullfight crowd did not burst back into the picture to register shock, as usual), left lingering impressions.

And every step of the action was superbly lighted by Joan Sullivan-Genthe, who helped underscore all the fantasy, boldness, unexpectedness, enchantment and tenderness in this vital production.

Opera

What: Carmen

Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington

When: Through June 6

Tickets: 800-876-7372, 202-467-4600

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