WASHINGTON, Sept.21, 2015 – The Washington National Opera kicked off its 60th season Saturday with a rousingly colorful and briskly-paced production of Georges Bizet’s enduringly popular “Carmen” at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
The current WNO production is perhaps not the most innovative we’ve seen in recent years. That award goes to the summer 2014 Santa Fe Opera production, which, with uncannily timing, re-imagined Carmen and her crew as nearly contemporary Mexican drug smugglers hiding out near a U.S. border crossing − almost exactly as President Obama effectively (and controversially) opened the borders to all comers.
But, that said, WNO’s take on this classic opera will prove appealing to a wide audience, including opera newbies looking to try this genre out without going too heavy duty. In the main, it’s well sung, well-acted, moves things along without dragging at all. And its sets, while relatively staid, are eye-poppingly colorful and give the cast plenty of room to maneuver.
Another more subtle advantage of this production: the cleverly recrafted flow of spoken and sung dialogue created and newly deployed by director E. Loren Meeker and conductor Evan Rogister.
As veteran opera fans know, Bizet’s original—not an initial success—included spoken dialogue, as was customary at Paris’ Opéra Comique, where it was debuted. Unfortunately, Bizet died not long thereafter, judging his innovative opera to be a failure. But associates put the spoken dialogue to sung recitatives and revived it on the road, where it almost instantly became the hit that it remains today.
In recent years, however, more and more productions have chosen to revert to Bizet’s original version and the spoken dialogue. In some productions, this has worked quite well, while at other times, it causes other productions to drag, particularly when they choose to interpolate contemporary allusions in the dialogue.
Given that no one could know the composer’s final intentions, Mr. Meeker and Maestro Rogister did some slicing and dicing between the two approaches, using spoken dialogue when it advanced the action effectively and switching on occasion to recitatif when it seemed to them that this approach would provide a more seamless way to introduce the next musical number.
I would have to say that their approach, while subtly different from others we’ve seen over the years, did have a noticeably positive affect on the pacing and vitality of this WNO production. Nothing dragged, there were no dull patches, and, in another nice touch, the incidental music between scenes was spiced up by a pair of accomplished dancers who livened the mood and made the proceedings seem somehow more authentic.
The colorful production itself, designed by Michael Yeargan for a pair of Canadian opera companies and the San Diego Opera, added to the positive atmospherics. Particularly effective was the inclusion of the contemporary, raked stadium stands in the final act where members of the chorus waved flags and cheered on the bullfighters in background as the final tragedy played itself out outside the building.
One brief negative: the heavy fence separating the soldiers from the populace in Act 1 simply lifted out of the way for the crowd scenes. So much for verisimilitude.
The opening night cast—there are actually two casts during this production’s longish run and an additional Don José for one performance—turned in good-to-great performances, adding to the generally festive atmosphere of opening night.
Chief among the vocalists was WNO’s opening night Carmen, French mezzo Clémentine Margaine. Although she seemed slightly flat in the early going, she righted herself quickly and turned in an interesting, quirky and, dare I say it, rather French take on Bizet’s feisty heroine. She chose to play Carmen as not quite the sex-crazed gypsy girl of recent operatic tradition, but more as a casually stealthy hunter systematically going through serial affairs, hoping for a permanent romance, but not really convinced it will happen. Her insouciance reminded me of the atmospherics you’ll often encounter in a French romantic art film.
Vocally, aside from those early bars, Ms. Margaine boasted a crisp, earthy, well-enunciated mezzo generally free from affectation but rich in expression. She easily carried every scene, as Carmen should.
High marks go as well to tenor Bran Hymel’s Don José. José is, in many ways, a Sad Sack of a role as romantic leads go. In fairly short order, José dumps his fiancé, Micaëla (Janai Brugger), breaks his poor mother’s heart and destroys his military career by dissing his superior and going AWOL, all for the (brief) love of a sexy but heartless gypsy girl who promptly dumps him a few months later after completely destroying his life. Yet José still comes crawling back, trying to light the fire again long after Carmen has doused the embers.
José, in short, might be the precursor to the kind of wimpy, easily controlled dream date only a militant 2015 feminist could appreciate, and it’s tough to make his character appealing. But Mr. Hymel gives it a go, holding out for a time against Carmen’s wicked charms before abandoning all and making a fool out of himself, giving his José at least a measure of dignity before the fall. Vocally, he enhances this effect with his strong, deeply affecting tenor voice in a far more convincing approach than we’re accustomed to experiencing in this opera.
Somewhat disappointing on opening night was Michael Todd Simpson’s portrayal of Escamillo, the champion bullfighter who quickly supplants José in Carmen’s ever-fickle bachelorette heart. Tall, attractive and slim, Mr. Simpson seemed not quite as imposing as other Escamillos we’ve seen, and the relative lack of manly swagger in his “Toreador Song” made his character seem somehow less carefree, dangerous and sexually intimidating than we’d expect.
Mr. Simpson’s vocal approach was clear and generally straightforward. But again, it seemed to fall just short of the kind of authoritative braggadocio I generally have associated with this character. No major fault here, but I found myself looking for more.
Carmen, José, Escamillo—these are the “big” roles in “Carmen.” But this is an opera where the secondary characters, ensembles and choruses also get to shine.
Chief among them is the sad but loyal character of Micaëla, José’s supposed fiancée who’s left in the lurch by his sudden, impetuous change of passions. Sung by sweet-voiced soprano Janal Brugger on opening night, this talented singer left little to be desired in her portrayal of a good-good girl who simply loses out to the kind of animal passion she’s never before witnessed in José.
Though Bizet’s music here is criticized by some churlish musicologists and critics as saccharin, Micaëla nonetheless gets a pair of Bizet’s loveliest, lyrical arias to sing, first early in Act I and later during her daunting journey to the smugglers’ hideaway. Both were given the gentlest, most affecting touch by Ms. Brugger, and her efforts were roundly appreciated by Saturday’s audience.
A hat tip as well to WNO Domingo-Cafritz alum Kenneth Kellogg, whose brisk, slightly swaggering portrayal of José’a superior officer Zuniga added snap and crackle to the opera’s first half.
Smaller but still key roles were convincingly and energetically sung by former or current members of WNO’s own Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, who portrayed Carmen’s fellow smugglers, namely Le Dancaïre (Christian Bowers), Le Remandado (Rexford Tester), and Carmen’s loyal gal pals Frasquita (Ariana Wehr) and Mercédes (Aleksandra Romano).
Kudos as well to that pair of dancers—Fanny Ara and Timo Nuñez—who added flamenco-style pizazz during the opera’s scene changes before deftly blending back into the crowd as each successive scene began to unfold. Normally, I’m not a great fan of interpolated dance sequences. But these were so well integrated and performed that they added greatly to the production instead of detracting from it.
WNO’s chorus was generally robust and filled with great animal spirits, although the male chorus of soldiers in the first scene was nearly inaudible during their opening number—likely due to a slight miscalibration with Saturday’s capacity audience as opposed to rehearsals. A little more volume in successive performances should solve the issue without much trouble.
While there were occasional glitches in the horns, the WNO orchestra turned in a spirited, authentic performance under the baton of Evan Rogister.
Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)
WNO’s production of Bizet’s “Carmen” continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Oct. 3, with a partially rotating cast.
Tickets and information: Ticket prices range from $25 to 295 depending on day and performance. For exact dates, times and performers, visit the Washington National Opera web pages at the Kennedy Center web site.