Amid rough moments, FGO delivers a dramatic, vocally strong “Carmen”

By David Fleshler

María José Montiel and Rafael Davila star in Bizet's "Carmen" at Florida Grand Opera. Photo: Daniel Azoulay

María José Montiel and Rafael Davila star in Bizet’s “Carmen” at Florida Grand Opera. Photo: Daniel Azoulay

Injecting freshness into familiar operas like Bizet’s Carmen is a necessary but risky business. Many directors ruin productions by attempting to wrest control from composer and librettist, turning great works into crude expressions of political or cultural agendas.

Fortunately, Florida Grand Opera’s production of Carmen, which opened the company’s season Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami, found ways to restore some of the original, primitive punch of this story of jealousy and death, played out in the hot, dusty world of southern Spain, without distorting the work into something it is not.

Everyone knows Carmen dies at the end. But stage director Bernard Uzan found a way to portray the murder in a manner that brought out its original shock and brutality. The dance scene at the tavern, choreographed by Rosa Mercedes, was particularly earthy and effective, with stamping feet and castanets, over a murmuring melody in the orchestra, that subordinated the music to the stage action, but did so in a way that enhanced the steamy atmosphere of sex and lawlessness.

Not everything worked. The overture was accompanied by two men dragging a body, presumably Carmen’s, away, and there was a baffling pantomime in the Prelude to Act 4 that involved flowers and Don José’s rejection by various women. In one odd change, Uzan moved the Entr-acte, the musical prelude to Act 3, and made it the final scene of Act 2, turning this famous flute melody into background music for a love scene between Carmen and Don José. Although this seemed interventionist, it gave the opera an element that had always been missing–a brief period of romantic happiness between Carmen and Don José, in an opera in which their primary on-stage interactions involve seduction, ruination, rejection and murder.

First and foremost, of course, Carmen needs a formidable singer in the title role, and FGO has one in María José Montiel. The Spanish mezzo-soprano effortlessly produced rich, sensual tones in the famous Habanera and Seguidilla, lowering her voice in the final renditions of the Habanera melody, in a manner that made the aria less showy and more insinuatingly intimate. In her stage manner, she communicated Carmen’s sexual mastery subtly, in the easy confidence of her walk and gestures, without the over-the-top posing and exaggeration often  portrayed.

Her singing wasn’t flawless. There were some strained high notes, particularly toward the end, and an occasional disjointed quality that disrupted the flow of melody. But she sang with a smooth and dark legato in the Act 3 card-reading scene, as she read the cards’ prediction of her death. 

In vocal heft, luster and emotional commitment, the tenor Rafael Davila also had what it takes to portray Don José, the hapless corporal whose destruction is assured as soon as he falls under Carmen’s spell. Of all the lead singers, he communicated the most raw emotion through his voice. Although some notes were vague and high notes fitfully thin, his voice gleamed through most of its range, communicating in the Flower Song the desperation of his love for Carmen. And in the final scene, he sang with impassioned lyricism the words “laisse-moi te sauver” (“let me save you”) as he implored Carmen to love him again and prevent her own murder.  

As the superstar bullfighter Escamillo, the bass-baritone Ryan Kuster had a decidedly rough night. He sang a fatally underpowered Toreador Song, struggling with the low notes of an aria intended to radiate swaggering self -confidence. By the end of Act 3, his singing had become virtually inaudible.

Philip Pierce, FGO’s director of artistic administration, came on stage after Act 3 and announced that Kuster had been fighting an infection and couldn’t continue. Kuster acted the role on stage as his understudy, Calvin Griffin, sang off stage, bringing a darkly lustrous voice to the toreador’s final duet with Carmen.

As Micaëla, Don José’s childhood friend, the soprano Hailey Clark created a compelling portrait of an unworldly but determined young woman, particularly in the warm lyricism of her duets with Davila. Her high notes were too hard-edged to communicate the sweet lyricism that should contrast with Carmen’s earthy sensuality. But in her big Act 3 aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante,” Clark effectively communicated her fear and courage as she called on God to give her the strength to confront Carmen.

The production from Lyric Opera of Kansas City was serviceable but nothing special–naturalistic, low-budget depictions of a stone city wall, a rustic tavern, the outside of the bullring.

The orchestra under Ramón Tebar plunged with gusto into the Spanish-inflected music, from the lusty dance tunes of the tavern and the macho music of the toreador to glowing and sensitively rendered flute and clarinet playing in the Entr’acte.

Aside from tentative, plodding work by male voices as they sang of the cigarette factory women, the FGO Chorus delivered at most of its important moments. The children’s chorus did fine work, aside from the fact that they were required to giggle constantly and annoyingly through the music for the changing of the guard. The kids sang with admirable intonation, style and diction.  

As the corporal Moralès, the baritone Nicholas J. Ward sang with smooth insinuation as he tried without success to get Micaëla to linger with him. As the officer Zuniga, the bass-baritone Alex Soare brought assurance befitting his rank as he tried to replace Don José in Carmen’s life. As Carmen’s fellow smugglers, Benjamin Taylor, Dominick Corbacio, Elena Galván  and Courtney Miller sang with convincing pleasure in the details of their trade, as they plotted their way past the border guards.

Florida Grand Opera’s production of Carmen runs through Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami and Dec. 1 and 3 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. The roles of Carmen and Don José will be sung Tara Venditti.and Alok Kumar Sunday and Friday.; 800-741-1010.


Posted in Performances

One Response to “Amid rough moments, FGO delivers a dramatic, vocally strong “Carmen””

  1. Posted Nov 19, 2016 at 12:44 pm by Daylen Elosegui

    November 18, 2016-Alok Kumar is superb, voice and acting. I also enjoyed Hailey Clark and, as always, Laura Leon did a magnificent job too. It was a marvelous production indeed. The way in which the scenery highlighted the love triangle and the exquisite music revealed the conflict was delectable and sensuous.

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Sun Nov 13, 2016
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