Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Opera review: Second cast of PBO's 'Carmen' features auspicious debuts

Madgalena Wór and Rafael Dávila in Carmen.
(Photo by Alissa Dragun)

By Rex Hearn

I’ve seen Georges Bizet’s Carmen many times, but the second cast of the recent Palm Beach Opera production offered even a veteran operagoer fresh delights.

Chief among them Saturday night was the Polish-born mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór, who made a magnificent debut with this company, with her rich, seductive mezzo sound, perfectly suited to the role. And her acting as the sultry, sexy and fiery cigarette girl had just the right amount of intensity.

She commanded everyone’s attention when she was on stage, and it’s surprising that this was her first performance in this role. I would venture to say that from now on she will be in great demand as Carmen (she will, however, have to learn to play the castanets).

The Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Dávila, fresh from his triumph as King Charles VII in Sarasota Opera’s Giovanna d’Arco, an early Verdi work, was brilliant as Don José, the corporal who loves Carmen too deeply. His stentorian voice and commanding presence matched Wór’s Carmen, toe to toe.

Holding his own in Act II, he delivered a most beautiful Flower Song, in which he tells Carmen he saved the flower she threw at him when they first met. His is a very strong masculine tenor, and his appearance marked another excellent debut for Palm Beach Opera.

Nmon Ford sang Escamillo, the bullfighter. The Panamanian-American singer brought daring and dignity to the role with a masterful baritone that thrilled the ladies as he sang the great Toreador Song. His lower register needs work, but his was a vital, athletic bullfighter, not your run-of-the-mill pot-bellied middle-aged baritone masquerading as such. Ford is another great talent to watch.

Soprano Georgia Jarman was a convincing Micaëla, the village girl Don José’s mother hopes he will marry. Her beautiful voice has a pure ringing timbre, crystal-clear and very distinctive, and she sounded wonderful in her final Act III aria. Director John Pascoe has her less the innocent and more the sophisticate, which I think worked very well in this production.

Korean bass Yoonsang Lee was excellent as Morales, and one wished he had more to sing. Five of Palm Beach Opera’s Young Artists made up the balance of the cast, and all were very good. Outstanding was Bradley Smoak as Zuniga, who has great acting chops and a chocolate-rich bass that was easy on the ear.

Debra Stanley’s Frasquita was beautifully sung -- hers is a sweet, light soprano voice – and Irene Roberts’ lovely mezzo stood out clearly as Mercédès. Jason Wickson’s tenor and Christopher Johnson’s baritone were strong mainstays in their vignettes as Remendado and El Dancaïro, respectively.

The orchestra under the baton of Frenchman Jean-Luc Tingaud played with gusto, this being music by “that vulgar French composer, Georges Bizet,” to quote the late upper-crust English writer, Dame Edith Sitwell. But even Dame Edith might have appreciated the way the ensemble played Saturday night, especially the horn section.

Tingaud has a lively beat, using expressive body movements to get his passion across in the pit, encouraging players to greater effort. He is assistant conductor at the Opéra-Comique in Paris where Bizet’s Carmen had its premiere in 1875.

In Carmen’s Act I Seguidilla, she entices Don Jose with visions of a carefree time at her friend Lillias Pastia’s café “close by the ramparts of Seville.” In this production the audience got ramparts in no small measure, as Pascoe placed huge arches around the stage that when manipulated, suggested a factory, a prison and even the great outdoors in the Gypsy encampment scene. Their best use came at the end as the stadium setting for the bullfight. Kudos to the local firm of Jupiter Scenic for their work on them, though I do wish they’d been scaled down a tad.

The climactic scene of Carmen, Act IV.

(Photo by Alissa Dragun)

Pascoe’s many original ideas brought a welcome freshness to this familiar warhorse of an opera. I liked his use of the children’s chorus front and center, which was excellently sung by members of the Young Singers of the Palm Beaches, and of the death of Carmen, which was accomplished with a picador’s spear, not a hidden knife on Don José. And the murder was done in sight of the crowd watching the bullfight, when normally it occurs outside the ring or in a side alley, leaving the doomed lovers alone to their fate.

To fault such a daring design seems churlish, but the two sets of stairs or steps leading to the high ramparts were so enormous as to slow down the action in Act I. Accommodating two choruses, platoons of soldiers, scores of supernumeraries, townspeople and the mayor of Seville with his retinue as they negotiated the stairs, became a guessing game as to who could make it up and down within the musical time frame allotted. Reducing the ramparts and steps would have speeded up an unnecessarily slow first act.

Surely Tingaud understood the design was problematic, which is probably why he frantically made “speed up” gestures with his hands so often in Act I.

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Before the performance Friday and Saturday nights, company General Manager Daniel Biaggi announced that the troupe’s fund-raising goal of $500,000 to meet the conditions of a matching grant from local philanthropist Helen K. Persson had been surpassed. Biaggi also said ticket sales had begun for the 2010-11 season, which will open in December with Verdi’s Nabucco, to be followed by two semi-staged concert performances of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in January. Mozart’s Così fan Tutte in February concludes the Da Ponte-Mozart trilogy the opera has been presenting, and the season ends in late March with Puccini’s Tosca.

Rex Hearn, founder of the Berkshire Opera Company in Massachusetts, has covered opera in South Florida since 1995.

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