Leyla Martinucci shines in Miami Lyric Opera’s “Carmen”

By Lawrence Budmen

Mezzo-soprano Leyla Martinucci was a commanding "Carmen" with Miami Lyric Opera.

Mezzo-soprano Leyla Martinucci was a commanding “Carmen” with Miami Lyric Opera.

Any traversal of Bizet’s Carmen rises or falls with the singer in the title role, and Leyla Martinucci was nothing short of terrific in a production by Miami Lyric Opera on Saturday night at South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay. The daughter of Nicola Martinucci, a leading Italian tenor of the ’80s and ’90s, Martinucci last season was one of the bright lights of MLO’s uneven Barber of Seville. Here, she was a theatrical and musical tour de force, sexy and playful — and a dominating stage presence — as the gypsy who becomes an object of fatal attraction.

Martinucci’s dusky-voiced “Habanera” radiated warmth in a firm low register. Her “Seguidilla” was sly and insinuating, and there was gutsy fire in her rendition of the “Les tringles des sistres tintaient,” bolstered by some swift-stepping flamenco from dancers Mayelu Perez and Jose Junco. In the card scene, Martinucci projected Carmen’s grim fate with expressive pathos in molten tones. She emerged tough and imperious in her confrontations with the Don José of tenor Philip Alongi, smiling defiantly even as she died horribly at his hands.

As the beleaguered officer whose obsession with Carmen dooms them both, Alongi was initially stiff and took some time to warm up vocally. His flower aria was sung with ardor and admirably soft dynamics but he really came into his own in the final two acts, as José realizes Carmen’s betrayal and attraction to the matador Escamillo. His Act III denunciation was assayed in stentorian tones and, in the final confrontation, he conveyed the soldier’s desperation and unhinged anger with fervor, his large instrument resounding inside the house.

Sara Beth Pearson projected the goodness and naiveté of José’s country sweetheart Micaëla. Her bright soprano blended smoothly with Alongi in the Act I duet and Micaëla’s Act III aria emerged as one long, spun lyrical reverie. Oscar Martinez’s Escamillo was the weakest link in the cast. The Mexican baritone has given some fine performances in MLO productions of Italian repertoire but he lacked both the low range and the clear top notes for the toreador’s famous song and his greeting to Carmen outside the bullring.

Secondary roles were cast from strength. Mikhail Smigelski had the regal bearing and low bass notes for the lieutenant Zuniga, and Jared Peroune and Gabriel Menéndez exhibited deft character voices and theatrical chops as the smugglers Remendado and Dancaïro, respectively. Carmen’s confidants Fransquita and Mercédès were vividly portrayed by Jessica Bianco Borbone and Emilia Acon, respectively.  Borbone’s high soprano and Acon’s luminous mezzo portend major future assignments. Daniel Snodgrass encompassed the officer Morales’ lines in a well projected baritone.

Veteran Italian conductor Elio Orciuolo was an energizing force on the podium. He brought out the color and drama of Bizet’s score. Despite some horn fluffs and occasional intonation problems from the strings, Orciuolo drew much improved playing from the small orchestral forces. Flutist Robert Billington’s pure tone and supple phrasing made the solo in the prelude to Act III a highlight of the evening.

The chorus has been a constant deficit in MLO performances. Despite some cuts in the choral parts, those problems were only exacerbated by the demands of Bizet’s vocal writing. While the cigarette girls’ song was well blended, the opening chorus of Act IV was a total disaster, the singers barely staying together.

Since moving to Cutler Bay from the company’s previous makeshift quarters at Colony Theatre in Miami Beach, production values have markedly improved. Backdrops from the venerable Stivanello-Sormani company and Pam De Vercelly’s costumes suffused the stage with color. Kristina Villaverde’s shadowy lighting of the smugglers’ mountain hideout was particularly striking. No-nonsense direction by MLO’s artistic chief, Raffaele Cardone, conveyed the drama and the characters’ emotional personalities in potent terms. Cardone’s adherence to the opera’s libretto, shorn of modernist staging idiosyncrasies, has been one of the group’s strong points.

Prior to the performance, Cardone announced that MLO had reached a milestone: its 150th performance as a company, a run that includes nineteen operas (in staged or concert versions) and numerous programs of operatic excerpts. With Carmen, as with many MLO productions, Cardone fielded a mix of established singers and young aspiring vocalists for a performance that exceeded the sum of its parts.

Miami Lyric Opera repeats Carmen 4 p.m Sunday at South Miami-Date Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay. smdcac.org.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Leyla Martinucci shines in Miami Lyric Opera’s “Carmen””

  1. Posted Aug 27, 2018 at 3:25 pm by Amalio Carneiro

    I have patiently endured your reviews for years, but this time, I need to address your review. For your information, MLO choir is a non paid group composed of music students, professionals who sing for the love of Opera and a few retirees, including myself.

    I find your comments about the chorus very destructive, damaging and discouraging. There are ways of writing a review by sticking to the facts and above all in a constructive way. Chorus Master Pablo Hernandez woks extremely hard with a group of people who attend rehearsals whenever they can and some do not even read music. Perhaps, you may want to join us for rehearsal so we can hear you.

    When I heard of your review you took my positive energy away. When readers read your review, may change their minds to attend on the next day performance. Your words hurt the Opera genre, which is fighting for survival in South Florida. You maybe working yourself out of a job. Next time, you need to talk more about the positive without omitting the weak parts. And, please do not use generalities and subjective feelings.. stay on the facts, like you did with Leyla.

    By the way, I am a retiree from the New York Times, so I know what I’m talking about.

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