Denyce Graves brings firepower to Washington Opera's 'Carmen'

CLEF NOTES

November 13, 2008|By tim smith | tim smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

When it was new, Bizet's Carmen generated little enthusiasm among the operatic intelligentsia. Typical of the reaction was this from The New York Times, after the opera's first U.S. performance in 1878: "As a work of art, it is naught." Even its tunefulness was called into question: "Of melody, as the term is generally understood, there is but little" said the Boston Gazette.

Makes you wonder what kind of meds those guys were on.

Needless to say, no amount of carping could ever stop Carmen from becoming one of the world's most popular operas. It is, on some levels, practically indestructible, and that durability is proven anew in Washington National Opera's latest staging of the piece.

Folks seeking the comforts of Carmen will likely leave the Kennedy Center sated, although anyone hoping for lots of new insights, musical or theatrical, may go home a bit hungry.

Denyce Graves staked a claim on the title role in the early 1990s. Judging by Monday's performance, she still owns a fair amount of it, especially when it comes to dishing out the sultry stuff. But, although the mezzo's voice still revealed theater-filling presence and moments of creamy beauty, the tone often turned harsh, and the shifting between registers sounded awkward and effortful.

Still, Graves summoned considerable emotional power for the confrontational scenes in the last two acts, revealing Carmen's intriguing combination of volatility, arrogance and dignity. And I enjoyed the singer's distinctive spins on the Habenera and Seguidilla, giving those familiar pieces unexpected freshness (if some rhythmic messiness).

Thiago Arancam caught the naivete of Don Jose, the soldier who loses his bearings after one transfixing glance from the free-spirited gypsy. The tenor's singing had a good deal of fire and a certain similarity in timbre to the young Placido Domingo, but many a nuance, including the pianissimo B-flat Bizet asked for in the Flower Song, went unattended.

Alexander Vinogradov strutted around amiably as Escamillo, the toreador who turns Carmen's head. He sang powerfully, but could have used more solidity, color and dynamic variation. As Micaela, the girl-back-home Don Jose should have settled down with, Sabina Cvilak sculpted the music sensitively. Top notes were not as sweet as the rest, yet there was eloquence in almost every phrase.

Julius Rudel, a decidedly authoritative conductor at 87, provided a mostly persuasive mix of propulsion and expressive finesse, and kept most of his forces together most of the time.

The sets from Austin Lyric Opera deliver just enough atmosphere for the production. Director David Gately doesn't seem to know what to do with crowd scenes, but he has added some subtle individual touches that pay off - a recurring emphasis on Carmen's card-reading obsession, for example, and a particularly novel way of having her raise her skirt even when her hands are tied behind her back.

"Carmen" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday with Denyce Graves; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday with Laura Brioli; at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington. For ticket availability, call 202-295-2400 or go to dc-opera.org.

Pro Musica Hebraica

In between writing provocative columns from a firmly conservative point of view and appearing as a talking head on political chat shows, Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Krauthammer devotes attention to a worthy cultural project - Pro Musica Hebraica, which he founded last year with his wife, artist Robyn Krauthammer. The organization seeks to bring attention to classical music by Jewish composers, especially those whose work have been neglected.

The 2008-2009 season of Pro Musica Hebraica opens next week with a concert by ARC, the ensemble-in-residence of Canada's Royal Conservatory of Music. The program includes the Clarinet Sonata and Piano Quintet written in the mid-1940s by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a significant figure in 20th-century Russian music. A piece by Polish composer Szymon Laks, composed two years after his liberation from Auschwitz, will also be played, along with Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington. Tickets are $50. Call 202-416-8500, or go to kennedy-center.org.

Handel Choir shines

In four years, Melinda O'Neal has steadily honed the formerly uneven Handel Choir of Baltimore into a classy ensemble, as reconfirmed last Saturday in a program of works by Handel and Bach performed at First English Lutheran Church.

A telling sign early on of how much O'Neal's fine-tuning has done for the group came in the firm, colorful way individual voices started off the contrapuntal flurry of the Alleluia in Handel's Coronation Anthem, "The King shall rejoice." That kind of refinement was unimaginable in the pre-O'Neal days that I experienced.

Two Bach cantatas received dynamic performances that likewise found the chorus maintaining solid intonation, clarity of articulation and sensitivity to the shape of phrases. There were admirable contributions as well from the guest soloists: countertenor Jay White (his fast vibrato was a bit distracting, his styling ever-elegant), tenor Robert Petillo and bass Phillip Collister.

One of O'Neal's most significant decisions as artistic director was the formation of a period orchestra used for baroque repertoire. Its contributions here were not entirely free of pitch discrepancies, but were always colorful and expressive. The woodwind soloists, in particular, made eloquent contributions.

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