BOC delivers a familiar `Carmen'

Music Review

May 03, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Opera Company's solid, comfort-food serving of Bizet's Carmen arrived at the Lyric Opera House Saturday night not quite piping hot, but still nourishing.

First-timers will get a very good idea of why this work remains so popular. And the production, with sets and costumes originally created for New York City Opera, will certainly please those who took offense at the company's last Carmen, a modernist staging in 1998. This time, scenery by Paul Shortt and costumes by Eduardo V. Sicangco follow a reassuring, traditional path. Lighting by Jeff Harris effectively accents the prevalent earth tones, generating considerable atmosphere, particularly for the darkening drama in the last two acts.

There's plenty of reassurance, too, from the pit. Conductor Alberto Veronesi's view of the score is decidedly propulsive. Even when the tempo slows, he keeps things charged, so that every note seems to point ahead to the bleak, unavoidable finale, when obsessive love collides with "a rebellious bird that no one can tame."

I wish Veronesi had insisted on using the original Carmen score, which uses spoken dialogue between vocal numbers, and which has more theatrical power (depending on the cast). The much-performed version, written by Ernest Guiraud after Bizet's death, that replaces the dialogue with orchestral recitatives may fit some narrow view of what constitutes "grand opera" but is still hard to justify. The recitatives always seem so stilted, compared to the rest of the music, creating awkward gear-shifts. And Veronesi's idea to tweak those recitatives by thinning out the orchestration doesn't really improve them.

Most opera-goers don't give a hoot about such matters, of course. They just want to hear all the indelible tunes delivered in style. Most of the time, they could do so Saturday night.

Milena Kitic brings to the title role a well-rounded, evenly supported tone and a basically sound technique. It is possible to produce more colors and telling inflections than this mezzo-soprano did in the Habanera and Seguedilla, but there was a consistent spark in her singing and an assurance to her characterization. She did not shy away from the stereotypical Carmen gestures - right hand on hip, left hand high in the air - but such gestures fit snugly into such a conventional production.

The role of Carmen's boyfriend-of-convenience Don Jose calls for a tenor with more vocal nuance and acting skill than Jose Luis Duval mustered. He was too much the Lil' Abner type in the first two acts, not always believably manic in the remainder. I never expect anyone to honor Bizet's request for a pianissimo B-flat near the end of the "Flower Song" (if you've never heard anyone do it, you just don't know what you're missing), but I can't see any reason to hold onto an ugly, stentorian note as long as Duval did. Where he made his mark was in the last act, summoning very passionate phrasing for his climactic encounter with Carmen.

Speaking of held notes, Randall Jakobsh capped an otherwise routine "Toreador Song" with one that lasted about half an hour. After that, his singing as Escamillo grew in subtlety, while his acting became more studly. The most interesting singing was offered by Carla Maria Izzo as Don Jose's unwisely spurned girlfriend, Micaela. With a dark timbre (vaguely reminiscent of Maria Callas') and unabashedly emotive phrasing, the soprano put real life into the character. Her Act 3 aria would have benefited from softer touches, but the intensity proved very affecting.

The rest of the soloists and the chorus did spirited, if sometimes musically uneven, work. The orchestra had its untidy (a few very untidy) moments, but rallied impressively for the big scenes, sensitively for the most lyrical ones.

Cynthia Edwards' stage direction played it safe and sensible. A few things - an awfully noisy fight among the factory women in the first act, for example, rather static blocking for the confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose in the last - could use rethinking, but the action overall complements the look and feel of the production.

By the way, Carmen is often said to be a curse for opera companies. Injuries seem to be common. In the 1998 Baltimore production, the lead singer broke a wrist during a fall opening night. Last week, tenor Marc Heller, who will sing Don Jose on Saturday (with Angela Horn as Carmen), dislocated his shoulder in a fall when he visited the orchestra pit during rehearsals. And on Saturday night, the final curtain got caught on scenery as it descended, forcing the conductor to hold onto the orchestra's last note. And hold it. And hold it some more. That's show biz.

Carmen

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. May 9

Tickets: $37 to $132

Call: 410-727-6000, or visit www.baltimore opera.com

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