Saturday, April 10, 2010

Opera review: PBO's 'Carmen' alive to characters' humanity, theatrical savvy

Viktoria Vizin as Carmen at Palm Beach Opera.
(Photo by Alissa Dragun)

By Greg Stepanich

It’s tough to bring something new to a work as well-known as Carmen, but the current Palm Beach Opera production of Georges Bizet’s classic, if not groundbreaking, fills out the opera’s promise with just plain good theater.

On Friday night, a stellar lead and a strong supporting cast, plus smart, interesting directing choices made this production, the last in the company’s season, absorbing in a work whose over-familiarity often blunts its impact.

Much credit for this goes to stage director John Pascoe, who clearly has given extensive thought to how he wants the people of this particular universe to make their impact, and it works. The chief personnel in this opera were distinguished by sharp characterizations that lent them an extra level of humanity.

Other credit goes to various principals. Viktoria Vizin, a Hungarian-born mezzo-soprano who has sung this role many times, including at the Metropolitan Opera in January, starred in Friday’s performance, and she is in every respect a first-rate Carmen. She has a smoky, attractive voice of great flexibility, and she knows every note of this score, which allows her to take the occasional liberty with strict tempo and make it sound entirely natural.

She also is a fine actress who knows how to use her body. Vizin is a tall woman with long legs, and she uses them as a major element of her portrayal, putting one foot on the thigh of a tied-up Zuniga, or perching them commandingly on the fountain in the Seville square as she sits down for a wash.

Some of her stage business was close to over-the-top: the orange that she turns into instant hair gel for Don José, the right hand that travels oh-so-close to her imminent paramour’s trouser-salute department, and the contemptuous grunt with which she hands back his ring in the final moments. But it never crossed the line into cartoon, and in the end Vizin’s expertly sung Carmen was forceful, believable and hugely watchable.

Viktoria Vizin and Andrea Carè in Carmen.

(Photo by Alissa Dragun)

As José, the young Italian tenor Andrea Carè came across more as conflicted than he did as a man driven to jealous rage, but he has a strong, often thrilling tenor in its higher registers, and it showed no sign of strain or wear. His La fleur que tu m’avais jetée in Act II was not fully inhabited, though it was sung well; as a key insight into José’s character, this aria needs to be sung with more nuance and a greater feeling of emotional turmoil.

The American soprano Georgia Jarman was Micaëla, and she, too, has an instrument of considerable strength. In its uppermost reaches, her voice was almost shrill, but it blended handsomely with that of Carè in the Act I duet (Parle-moi de ma mère). She was appropriately girlish in Act I and effective as someone who’s been burned in Act III, which she ended with a slap to José’s face.

As Escamillo, the Panamanian-American baritone Nmon Ford was self-confidence personified, and he has a beautiful voice to back it up. He sang very well, even if the always difficult lower reaches of Toreador, en garde in Act II were somewhat indistinct, and by the time of his Act III entrance (Je suis Escamillo), he was singing even better, dominating the scene.

Bradley Smoak was an excellent Zuniga, with a sharp-edged bass voice and good diction, and his fellow resident in the Young Artist program, baritone Christopher Johnson, brought the same kind of vocal distinction to his turn as El Dancairo. Soprano Debra Stanley and mezzo Irene Roberts made a good team as Frasquita and Mercédès, respectively, with Roberts in particular offering a voice of rich quality. Korean bass Yoonsang Lee sang pleasantly in the minor role of Morales.

This is an opera with a lot of chorus work, and the Palm Beach Opera contingent did well, for the most part, with one exception of noticeable weakness in the men during the opening smugglers’ chorus of Act III. The children’s chorus was reasonably on point, but this group and the main chorus had some trouble keeping up with the often very speedy baton of conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud.

This was especially true during the Act II quintet of the Carmen and her companions, which was just too fast for comfort, and lost some of its charm thereby. Two other points of tempo were also somewhat destabilizing, such as the very opening of Act II, which was a bit too slow and too quiet, robbing the scene of its initial energy, and the Carmen-Escamillo duet in Act IV, which also was on the too-slow side, though apparently intentional for dramatic reasons.

In general, though, Tingaud conducted well, and the orchestra played admirably, with good horn work in the Micaëla music standing out.

The set, cannibalized from the Palm Beach Opera’s set for Fidelio, was simple but effective, especially in Act III, and Jeff Davis’ lighting design underlined Pascoe’s conceptions handily. And these were good ideas, too, by a director who knows how to entertain an audience and still have something to say.

His Act IV is quite unusual, with the second half of the act taking place in a slow-motion, blood-red dream world, in which the hands of the audience in the bullring can be seen moving at a quarter of the speed as the principals. The manner of Carmen’s death is much more violent than what you normally see, but it works, not least because of the expression of relief and joy on Vizin’s face as she adjusts her headdress and moves to rush into the stands.

Carmen is perhaps the most popular, best-known opera in the world, and productions of it are legion (this is one of three this season on area stages). Palm Beach Opera’s version demonstrates that even the most well-worn works can be as fresh as they were when new, if the right conceptual mindset is brought to bear, and the cast and crew are willing to do it.

Carmen can be seen at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center with Vizin and Care, and at 2 p.m. Monday with Magdalena Wór as Carmen and Rafael Dávila as Don Jose. For tickets, call 833-7888 or visit


Marcio Bezerra said...

Could not agree more with your comments. This short season was PB Opera's best in years.
I have never heard such consitent high quality among singers cast by the company before.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the previous comments. This was a first class production with quality written all over. Cannot wait for the next season!