Vocal fire overcomes furniture in FGO’s superbly sung “Carmen”

By David Fleshler

Kendall Gladen as Carmen tempts Adam Diegel's Don Jose in FGO's "Carmen." Photo: Gaston de Cardenas

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.

Elaine Alvarez as Micaëla with Adam Diegel as Don Jose. Photo: Gaston de Cardenas.

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.

Posted in Performances

13 Responses to “Vocal fire overcomes furniture in FGO’s superbly sung “Carmen””

  1. Posted Apr 26, 2010 at 12:24 am by Marcus Cato

    Once again, redoubtable, lamentable evidence of the tragic absence of Mr. Johnson in Miami. The FGO performed wonders this season with a diminished budget, including the Carmen set. Mr. Fleshler apparently has never stepped foot inside a Spanish tablado where tables and chairs are flung indiscriminately and are iconic of fiery Spanish flamenco tales of love and betrayal. He should visit Casa Panza in Miami to get a tourist’s introduction. Fleshler completely missed the point and lauded his own ignorance by deriding the production.
    Further, I’m curious to know whether Mr. Fleshler attended the same opening night show that I did, or perhaps he has little to no training in listening to classical singing. While Ms. Gladen certainly possesses enormous promise, her high notes were horribly strained and low notes inaudible. Her Carmen characterization was stiff and almost masculine. Carmen is a French opera about a Spanish tale. Removing Carmen’s viperous sensuality robs the character of its identity. Mr. Diegel possesses a thrilling tenor, handsome stage presence and a bright future. His power waned, however, when he “caught” his high notes in his throat and did not allow them to rign — a sign, perhaps that he lacked proper breath support.
    The real find of the evening was Ms. Alvarez. Her French diction and style were impeccable. She is a natural actress who made an enormously sympathetic Micaela. Her top notes rang through the theater, and her lush soprano was a sheer delight. The FGO would be wise to have her return in a more substantive role.
    Mr. Waters is a conductor with a definite opinion about the music. His tempi seemed to drag, however, and the orchestra seemed bland in the more stylistic sections of the score.
    Mr. Johnson, we miss you.

  2. Posted Apr 26, 2010 at 5:45 am by DavidY

    Here is a video of André Barbe and Renaud Doucet talking about how they approached their production of Carmen:


  3. Posted Apr 26, 2010 at 3:28 pm by CarlosAssef

    Being the first time that I had invited my mother to attend an operatic performance, i was really let down in the way that FGO’s Carmen was presented.
    Although the lighting and costumes where somewhat colorful, the production lacked good taste in scenic and artistic production, not to mention the “chairs”.
    I hope that this can be mended for future performances and that my comments serve a constructive purpose.

  4. Posted Apr 26, 2010 at 3:54 pm by operagirl

    I wish that the reviewer had found room for one more
    paragraph in order to acknowledge the 5 FGO Young
    Artists who are performing in Carmen – bass-baritone
    Benjamin Clements as Zuniga, the Captain; soprano Julia
    Ebner and mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider as Frasquita
    and Mercedes, the gypsy fortune-tellers; and baritone
    Jonathan G. Michie and tenor David Bailey as Le Dancaire
    and Le Remendado, the smugglers. Each of them sang
    and acted with great distinction and professionalism.

  5. Posted Apr 26, 2010 at 4:53 pm by Antonio C.

    I think it is refreshing to see a conceptualized, stylized staging of Carmen. I agree with Mr. Fleshler’s comments about the singers, except for Elaine Alvarez who got her high notes out with elan in my opinion. On the other hand, some of the incidental music seemed to fast-paced for the drama, and the Toreador song seemed a little plodding from both the baritone and the orchestra. Yeah, the orchestra was a little dull and undernuanced, and it may be worth pointing out that intonation suffered in other sections of the orchestra too… It seems that reviewers in this town pick an instrument group to nag on repeatedly. Often it is the horns; these days, the cellos. See Mr. Fleshler’s review of last week’s Dvorak with the New World Symphony for an example.

  6. Posted Apr 27, 2010 at 11:58 am by Dave R.

    This is entirely off the subject, but wouldn’t it be interesting if the New World was in the pit for one FGO production each year? I’m sure some of the NWS fellows are interested in playing in an opera pit, and this would give the orchestra the opportunity to do something besides orchestral and chamber concerts. And for opera-goers, it would add a little spark in the pit to one production each year (the NWS has never been accused of being boring).

    I suspect, though, that there could be a union issue here.

  7. Posted Apr 27, 2010 at 6:05 pm by Chirpie

    Amazing, I think the reviewer went to see another Carmen… I totally disagree with him. If anybody had problems with the high notes was the tenor, he even cracked. I can’t imagine the reviewer not hearing it. Where were you? I agree with Mr. Cato that
    he lacks breath support.Alvarez voice was clean and resonant from top to bottom, without strain and with a dephth of expression that no other performer achieved in this production. When she was singing the aria in the third act you coul feel, first the anguish of Micaela trying to be strong in order to confront Carmen, and then the force of her courage. Opera is more than singing, is acting and more than anything feeling it.

  8. Posted Apr 27, 2010 at 11:12 pm by Terrance

    Rehearsals and performing an entire run at FGO takes almost a month start to finish. This would take an enormous amount of time and energy away from NWS. The above comment is asinine without even considering the cost, logistics, fairness to local musicians, union rules, and the assumption that NWS fellows would be interested.

  9. Posted Apr 28, 2010 at 5:41 am by Dave R.

    Terrance: You must be in the FGO pit to have responded the way you did. Point by point, “This would take an enormous amount of time and energy away from NWS.” Time and energy away from what? Performing classical music? Cost? NWS doesn’t seem to have a lot of money problems, and the cost to FGO would obviously be less. Fairness to local musicians? I somewhat agree, but visiting orchestra play here all the time. Union rules? Okay. I mentioned that. Logistics? During that month of rehearsals for the orchestra, how much is with the singers? Also, NWS has been known to play out of town, so logistics shouldn’t be a huge issue. The assumption that NWS fellows would be interested? Why wouldn’t they be. It’s what many of them will do for a living.

    Let’s face it: There’s plenty of room for innovation and improvement at FGO, including in the pit. Asinine is the idea that business as usual at FGO is a good idea.

  10. Posted Apr 28, 2010 at 8:35 am by James

    @David R-Terrance is correct about the amount of time that would be necessary to have NWS perform a single run for FGO. However, the union/local musician aspect is not an issue, as FGO is not a union approved organization. FGO uses the cheapest musical labor they can get, and will discard musicians without process whenever it is in their economic interest. They also allow musicians to sub in and out, which is new since the 08 season. If you continue to support this crap organization, then you probably aren’t interested in the quality of performance. It’s like going to see a movie starring Jennifer Lopez to pass the time on a rainy afternoon…you’ll still want your money back and wish you had spent a few hours cleaning your bathroom instead.

  11. Posted Apr 29, 2010 at 12:12 am by Terrance

    Dave R: I’m not a member of FGO or any orchestra. I was actually referring to an agreement that New World has (not FGO) with the local branch of the Musician’s Union to not take work away from local musicians, as they are technically an educational institution. New World faithfully and carefully tries their best to observe this. If they were to play in a pit, that would take time out of their season, thus diminishing their ability to perform and rehearse for their regular concerts (thus there would be less performances like Mahler 5 with MTT and the current Debussy festival, for example).

    At FGO, there is about a week of orchestral rehearsal, most with the cast in addition to the performance run of about three weeks.

    Have you spoken to NWS fellows personally about their desire to sit in a pit for a month and play Carmen instead of playing with Yuja Wang or Jeremy Denk? Are you well-versed enough in NWS’s finances to assume that they could play for FGO and not make any money from ticket sales? Are you aware of what FGO pays their orchestra members or what their rehearsal schedule is? I suspect that the answer for these questions is no, and that’s why your post is asinine, illogical, confusing, needless and damaging. I know this is a public blog and people are free to post, but I wanted to post my response because your various and unfounded assumptions could possibly be misconstrued by those who aren’t involved with these institutions and the rumor mill could get started.

  12. Posted Apr 29, 2010 at 7:16 am by Dave R.

    Terrance: My comment wasn’t asinine, and I wasn’t trying to start a rumor. I was just throwing out an idea. Your first response was asinine, and your second response was actually what your first response should have been–somewhat informative–until you once again turned into a passive-aggressive ass in the third paragraph. How the hell is anyone who isn’t involved with NWS or FGO supposed to know some of the things you said in the more-informative parts of your second post? No, I haven’t spoken to anyone in NWS. I’m an audience member, not a journalist. I was throwing out an IDEA. Idiot.

  13. Posted Apr 30, 2010 at 12:24 am by Terrance

    Sorry, asinine was too harsh a word. Don’t mean to be an ass or an idiot, or passive agressive. My apologies. I, like you am a dedicated audience member. The Miami arts scene is fragile, and I was worried that a suggestion could be misunderstood by fickle readers. Again, my apologies for my harsh and presumptuous words.

Leave a Comment

Sun Apr 25, 2010
at 2:12 pm