A sultry Shaham provides the bright spots in PB Opera’s tepid “Carmen”

By David Fleshler

Rinat Shaham in the title role and Leonardo Capalbo as Don Jose in Bizet's "Carmen" at Palm Beach Opera.

Rinat Shaham in the title role and Leonardo Capalbo as Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen” at Palm Beach Opera. Photo: PB Opera.

For all the trouble Carmen creates for everyone she meets, the gypsy temptress saved the day in Palm Beach Opera’s otherwise tepid, vocally mediocre production of the Bizet classic.

The Israeli mezzo soprano Rinat Shaham has made a specialty of the role, and on the stage of the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach Friday night, her mastery was clear. With an untamed mane of black hair, a restless on-stage sensuality and a rich and sultry voice, she brought to powerful life the lawless woman who carelessly bewitches men. Although none of the other singers approached her level, the Carmen production, which opened Palm Beach Opera’s 2016 season, is worth seeing for her performance alone.

The melodies of the Habanera and Seguidilla are so well known that they often lose a lot of their original force. But as Shaham sang them, her plush voice and insinuating phrasing restored their elemental sexual power, creating a convincing vocal persona of a woman of irresistible allure. She was particularly strong in the smoky lower register, so important for this role, with a darkly lustrous tone in the Act 3 aria in which she faced the impending death foretold in the cards. (The Danish soprano Nora Sourouzian will sing the role Saturday, with Shaham returning for the final matinee performance Sunday.)

Aside from Shaham, the other bright spot was Palm Beach Opera’s always-reliable orchestra, led by new chief conductor David Stern. The musicians gave a precise, energetic and brilliantly colored performance, snapping off the Spanish-inflected turns of phrase with style, with particularly fine work by the winds in Bizet’s inventive, memorable melodies.

The stage direction by John de los Santos had hits and misses. Fight scenes in the first and second acts came off as stiff and affected, but otherwise the performers were directed in a naturalistic manner that suited the opera’s realistic, working-class setting. There were several nice touches, such as the manner in which the soldiers crowded around in mock-gallantry around the understandably nervous Micaëla. And he brought us behind the facade of Carmen’s sexual self-confidence, having her experiment with different poses as she prepares for her lover Don José’s arrival.

But Carmen’s entrance was undermined. As set up in the opera, in a scene with screaming women and milling soldiers, the first appearance of Carmen on stage should be a big moment, as she exits the cigarette factory like a rock star. But in Palm Beach Opera’s staging, she had already shown up during the orchestral Prelude, walking slowly toward her own shadow and then picking up a flower, in a streetscape lit a hellish red.

The tenor Leonardo Capalbo proved disappointing in his portrayal of the soldier Don José, Carmen’s hapless lover. While he brought an agreeable tone to the performance, his tone was unfocused and his singing lacked emotional commitment. Here is a man torn among two women,  as well as his duty and his mother, a man desperately in love with Carmen, whose inner torment finally leads him to murder.

Yet if his soul was on fire, there was no evidence of it in this performance. Capalbo’s “Flower Song” lacked passion, with no edge to its upper-register climax. In the final scene, as he confronts Carmen outside the bull ring, there was none of the distraught emotion of a man finally going off a moral and emotional cliff. Dominick Chenes will sing the role Saturday, with Capalbo returning Sunday.

The toreador Escamillo, 19th-century’s Spain’s equivalent of a star quarterback, should dominate the stage with a thunderous voice and physical presence to match. Unfortunately, the baritone Zachary Nelson brought too small a voice and a lack of aggressive panache to the role, with his singing of the “Toreador Song” frequently overwhelmed by the orchestra. Little in his singing or stage manner seemed to justify the women crowding around him, not to mention Carmen’s attentions.

The Greek soprano Eleni Calenos had the sweet, naive manner appropriate to the role of Micaëla, the nice girl Don José rejects in favor of a Gypsy smuggler. But her performance was vocally unsteady. While she summoned up a sense of fear, courage and determination in her Act 3 aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante,” she sang with an uneven, disjointed tone.

Sets from Cincinnati Opera were serviceable but nothing special–a rudimentary town square, an unfinished wood tavern. The exception was the smuggling scene in the mountain pass, where the jagged landscape and falling snow drew applause when the curtain rose.

The children’s chorus, singing with street-urchin energy and professional precision, had a better night than the usually reliable adult chorus, which gave a mushy performance, particularly in the opening of the third act.

As the corporal Morales, the baritone Tobias Greenhalgh brought a smooth, pleasant voice to his small part. Bass Musa Ngqungwana made an imposing figure as the officer Zuniga, with a shaved head, eye patch and cigar, although his warbly voice didn’t match his physical presence.

As Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès, soprano Jessica Fishenfeld and mezzo soprano Fleur Barron made a vivacious pair, forming an effective ensemble with the roguish smugglers portrayed by the tenor Robert Watson and baritone Jason Duika.

Bizet’s Carmen will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. pbopera.org; 800-572-8471.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “A sultry Shaham provides the bright spots in PB Opera’s tepid “Carmen””

  1. Posted Jan 25, 2016 at 8:57 pm by Ruth McDonagh

    I received 2 tickets from my sons for Christmas. I was in Florida for Winter and I took my best friend of 70 years. The Palm Beach Opera did not have the address of the Kravis Center, so we mistakenly went to the Palm Beach Opera address on the tickets, then spent almost two hours trying to find the center.

    The biggest disappointment was the staging of the show. I know this was not The Met, but the show was so boring and unrealistic that people started leaving before and after the first Act. Carmen’s voice was the only saving grace. The performances were mediocre and the staging made no sense and this from someone who has seen “Carmen” more than once.

    Terribly disappointed

Leave a Comment

Sat Jan 23, 2016
at 1:59 pm
1 Comment