Monday, May 17, 2010

Opera review: Sometimes brilliant, sometimes silly, FGO's 'Carmen' still bold, colorful

Kendall Gladen and Adam Diegel in Act IV of‭ ‬Carmen.‭
(‬Photo by Gaston de Cardenas‭)

By Greg Stepanich

The Florida Grand Opera closed its‭ ‬69th season Saturday night in Fort Lauderdale with a production of Georges Bizet‭’‬s‭ ‬Carmen that was sometimes brilliant,‭ ‬sometimes risible,‭ ‬but that also offered reliably good singing and enough dramatic punch to give it real entertainment value.

In their bid to reinterpret this greatest of French operas,‭ ‬the Franco-Canadian team of André Barbe and Renaud Doucet‭ ‬spent time in Andalucia soaking up authentic Spanish culture,‭ ‬and it was those moments of the‭ ‬production that were most successful as departures from the norm.‭ ‬The two men brought in‭ ‬15‭ ‬flamenco dancers for this‭ ‬production,‭ ‬and they were used to excellent effect,‭ ‬particularly at the opening of the second act,‭ ‬in which the troupe danced on tabletops as the music started its slow build,‭ ‬and in the entr‭’‬acte to Act IV,‭ ‬which was accompanied by a couple‭’‬s dance lit in bright yellow.

The other major element of this Spanish Civil War-era‭ ‬starkly modern production,‭ ‬which was bereft of town square,‭ ‬factory,‭ ‬mountains and bullring in favor of a huge‭ ‬metallic wall with a door that served for all four acts,‭ ‬was chairs.‭ ‬The wall itself had silver-painted chairs mounted like windows,‭ ‬and throughout the production,‭ ‬cast members carried chairs wherever they went,‭ ‬dropping them into place for audience purposes or using them as props in dance moves.

José Junco,‭ ‬Julia Ebner,‭ ‬Kendall Gladen,‭
‬Amanda Crider and Jorge Robledo in Act II of‭ ‬Carmen.‭
(‬Photo by Gaston de Cardenas‭)

At times,‭ ‬especially at the opening of Act III for the smugglers‭’‬ chorus,‭ ‬which had the singers moving slowly across the stage,‭ ‬some in near-Monty Python walking style,‭ ‬with chairs in hand,‭ ‬drew chortles and grumbles from the audience near me,‭ ‬and in all truth it looked‭ ‬pretty silly.‭ ‬But then there were moments when‭ ‬Doucet‭’‬s‭ ‬conception‭ ‬became quite clear,‭ ‬such as in the second act,‭ ‬with men and women lining up on opposite sides in rows with their chairs,‭ ‬slamming them down in time:‭ ‬Here was the essential man-woman dynamic,‭ ‬as filtered through the haughty color of flamenco,‭ ‬writ large over the whole cast,‭ ‬augmenting and commenting on the Carmen-Don José relationship.

Another‭ ‬nice piece of stagecraft came at the final confrontation between Carmen and Don José,‭ ‬when José poured a red-paint bullring on the ground,‭ ‬and Carmen,‭ ‬in red dress,‭ ‬held the sides out,‭ ‬bullfighter style,‭ ‬then dodged the charging José in quick feints.‭ ‬Perhaps that,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬overreached a bit,‭ ‬but it was‭ ‬interesting,‭ ‬and certainly the most unusual,‭ ‬inventive‭ ‬Carmen‭ ‬I‭’‬ve seen in some time.‭ ‬That it tried too hard to incorporate the chairs into everything,‭ ‬and that it was only partly successful dramatically,‭ ‬does not detract from the boldness of this production,‭ ‬or make it any less worth doing.

As Carmen,‭ ‬the St.‭ ‬Louis native Kendall Gladen offered a smoky,‭ ‬silky mezzo,‭ ‬very attractive in its lowest reaches and quite well-suited to this role.‭ ‬Her voice is not very large,‭ ‬but it‭’‬s a pleasure to listen to.‭ ‬As an actress Gladen was at her best in the‭ ‬more petulant aspects of her character,‭ ‬such as her funny mockery of the bugle call that sounds the call to duty for a reluctant José.

Elaine Alvarez as Micaëla and Adam Diegel
‭ ‬as Don José‭ ‬in Act I of‭ ‬Carmen.‭
(‬Photo by Gaston de Cardenas‭)

Tenor Adam Diegel was a very fine Don‭ ‬José,‭ ‬with a strong,‭ ‬cutting voice that rang out from the first notes and never let him down after that.‭ ‬His‭ ‬Flower Song was passionate and vivid,‭ ‬and he made the most of his climactic exclamation in that great aria‭ ‬– Te revoir,‭ ‬ô‭ ‬Carmen‭ ‬– showing us the vulnerable,‭ ‬ardent side of this tortured character.‭ ‬He acted well,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬doing nice work in a stylized knife fight with Escamillo and acting properly desperate in his final meeting with Carmen.

Soprano Elaine Alvarez,‭ ‬a Miami native who was making her debut‭ ‬with her hometown company,‭ ‬showed off a lovely,‭ ‬mature sound as Micaëla,‭ ‬and an instrument with enough power to carry her aloft on the Gounod-style upper reaches of much of her character‭’‬s music.‭ ‬This is a voice whose bigness is evident even though it sounded somewhat tired at times Saturday night.
‭ ‬As Escamillo,‭ ‬the baritone Mark Walters sang capably and well,‭ ‬in a very French,‭ ‬tightly controlled style.‭ ‬He played the character with the dignity of a prominent,‭ ‬successful man,‭ ‬no doubt aided by the Fernando‭ ‬Lamas-like smoking jacket in which he first appears at Lillias Pastia‭’‬s tavern in Act II.

Soprano Julia Ebner,‭ ‬as Frasquita,‭ ‬and mezzo Amanda Crider,‭ ‬as Mercédès,‭ ‬were effective as Carmen‭’‬s comrades in arms‭; ‬Ebner has the bigger sound,‭ ‬but she and Crider blended well vocally,‭ ‬and they were effective on stage.‭ ‬Bass Benjamin Clements was a capable Zuniga,‭ ‬as was baritone Graham Fandrei as Morales and Jonathan G.‭ ‬Michie as Dancairo.

Mark Walters as Escamillo in‭ ‬Carmen.‭
(‬Photo by Gaston de Cardenas‭)

FGO‭’‬s orchestra was quite fine,‭ ‬with strong playing from the ensemble and solo instruments,‭ ‬particularly flute and horn.‭ ‬Willie Anthony Waters led them masterfully,‭ ‬and showed his long experience as a theater conductor in getting things back on track during at least one tricky moment at the end of‭ ‬Les tringles des sistres tintaient‭ ‬when the extra percussion of dancers‭’‬ feet and hand clapping threatened to throw everyone off.‭

The authentic Spanish costumes in Act IV of the‭ ‬bandilleros‭ ‬and‭ ‬picadors added an extra dose of strong regional flavor,‭ ‬and Gordon W.‭ ‬Olson‭’‬s‭ ‬lighting was smart and apt,‭ ‬particularly in how he was able to make a bonfire appear to flicker in a pile of chairs by using ribbons of orange light.

This production played Acts II and III without a break,‭ ‬which was hard for some of the audience to handle,‭ ‬and tougher than‭ ‬the more usually encountered staging of an unbroken Acts III and IV.‭ ‬One wonders why it is so rarely staged as it originally was,‭ ‬with four separate acts and three intermissions‭; ‬each act is different enough for the opera to work just fine without having‭ ‬to keep everyone in their seats through two of them.‭

Barbe and Doucet will return to FGO next January for a production of Offenbach‭’‬s‭ ‬Tales of Hoffmann,‭ ‬a story that offers all kinds of room for this team‭’‬s imaginative arsenal to make an impact.‭ ‬Both FGO and the Palm Beach Opera have staged radically different productions of popular operas this year,‭ ‬which says promising things about the willingness of local audiences to accept a more European approach of directorial conceptions for well-known works quite at odds with decades,‭ ‬even centuries of tradition.

Florida Grand Opera will open its‭ ‬70th season‭ ‬Nov.‭ ‬13-Dec.‭ ‬4‭ ‬with Giacomo Puccini‭’‬s‭ ‬Turandot,‭ ‬his last and most spectacular opera.‭ ‬Jacques Offenbach‭’‬s final work,‭ ‬Tales of Hoffmann‭ (‬like‭Turandot,‭ ‬unfinished‭ ‬at its composer‭’‬s death‭) ‬follows‭ ‬Jan.‭ ‬22-Feb.‭ ‬12‭ ‬and from April‭ ‬16-May‭ ‬14,‭ ‬Mozart‭’‬s‭ ‬Don Giovanni,‭ ‬in a production originally mounted for the Washington Opera.‭ ‬The fourth opera in the season is new,‭ ‬American composer David DiChiera‭’‬s‭ ‬Cyrano,‭ ‬a retelling of‭ ‬the Edmond Rostand play starring Leah Partridge and Marian Pop,‭ ‬who originated the roles for this opera at its‭ ‬Detroit‭ ‬premiere in‭ ‬2007.‭ ‬Cyrano‭ ‬will be mounted only at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami from April‭ ‬23-May‭ ‬7.‭ ‬For more information,‭ ‬call‭ ‬800-741-1010‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬‭

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