Vocal fire overcomes furniture in FGO’s superbly sung “Carmen”
Finally, a Carmen for people who really, really like chairs.
Florida Grand Opera opened its final production of the season Saturday with a superbly sung, bizarrely staged take on Bizet’s masterpiece that made extensive and baffling use of straight-backed chairs.
The simple, presumably economical set on the stage of the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House consisted of a gray wall to which 26 chairs had been fastened in four rows. When the women came out of the cigarette factory, each came on stage holding a chair. At the Gypsy smugglers’ mountain camp, a pile of chairs served as a bonfire, and as they crept in a long row through the mountains, each carried a chair. (“I always wondered what they were smuggling,” one audience member said at intermission.)
It wasn’t clear what the chairs meant, but it was obviously important, since there were a lot of them. But the furniture motif aside, this was easily Florida Grand Opera’s best production of the season, with excellent singers in each role and firm support from the orchestra.
The directing and design team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe created a stripped-down-to-the-essentials, modern-dress Carmen, with the soldiers in black berets, khaki uniforms and holstered pistols. Doucet and Barbe travelled to Spain in their research, and the trip paid off with a smoky, brilliantly atmospheric evocation of Lillas Pastia’s tavern, as men and women sat at tables and shouted approval in Spanish as Flamenco dancers moved to Bizet’s sultry music.
Some may object to the dancers’ loud, rhythmic stomping, since it essentially added a percussion part that Bizet did not write, frequently drowning out the orchestra. But with such familiar music this was an effective way of adding a current of energy to the performance. And for the final scene, the team’s search for authenticity led them to bring from Spain real, “blooded,” torero costumes.
In the title role was Kendall Gladen, who gave a brilliantly sung, subtly characterized performance. The American mezzo-soprano didn’t do the stereotypical Carmen thing, which entails lots of sensual, provocative gestures and come-hither glances. And she appeared uncomfortable when required to walk along a long row of—you guessed it—chairs during the Habanera.
But vocally her performance was first rate. Her rich, focused voice appeared to have no weak spots. And what she didn’t do with her movements she did with her voice, as she sang a sensual, opulent Habanera and Près des remparts de Séville, where she persuades Don Jose to let her escape.
The role of Micaëla saw the belated Florida Grand Opera debut of the soprano Elaine Alvarez, a Kendall native who made a smash hit at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2007 as a last-minute replacement for Angela Gheorghiu in La Boheme. Although her top notes showed effort, her voice was pure and radiant in the middle, and her impassioned singing of Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante, when she tries to gather her courage to reach Don Jose in the mountains, was a highlight of the night.
The role of Don Jose can be a thankless one, elbowed out of the way dramatically by Escamillo and vocally by Carmen. But the tenor Adam Diegel sang the part with such intensity that he gave the role a stature it rarely achieves on stage. Singing with a rapid but tight vibrato that maintained a firm tonal focus, he was particularly strong in his duet with Alvarez, in which he sang of his memories of home, and in La fleur que tu m’avais jetée, where he sings of Carmen’s hold over him.
The baritone Mark Walters, whose Enrico was a highlight of Florida Grand’s recent production of Lucia di Lammermoor, played the role of the toreador Escamillo with the assurance of a man with everything Don Jose lacked. His Toreador Song was dramatic but never swaggering, as he recounted the excitement of the bull ring with an impressive, deep baritone that carried effortlessly over the orchestra.
This production saw the return of the conductor Willie Anthony Waters, who had been artistic director of Florida Grand Opera from 1985 to 1992. Aside from some intonation problems in the cellos, the orchestra under Waters gave a precise, tautly dramatic performance.
Florida Grand Opera performs Carmen Wednesday through May 8 at the Arsht Center in Miami and May 13 and 15 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. Call 800-741-1010 or go to www.fgo.org.
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Sun Apr 25, 2010
at 2:12 pm