Young musicians vie with problematic acoustic in MBCMF’s “Carmen”

By Inesa Gegprifti

Bizet’s Carmen was presented by the Miami Beach Classical Music Festival Thursday night at the Faena Forum. Poster: Moira Risen

This year marks the ninth season of the Miami Beach Classical Music Festival (originally Miami Music Festival) and its summer institute, which focuses on nurturing young vocalists, instrumentalists, and conductors. The current season culminates with four full-fledged opera productions, among other activities interspersed during the summer program.

Last weekend they staged Wagner’s monumental Die Rheingold in an immersive visual setting, an ambitious and overall successful undertaking for the festival’s artistic director and founder, Michael Rossi. On Thursday evening, conductor Mark Gibson led the institute’s orchestra and the young vocalists in Georges Bizet’s Carmen at the Faena Forum in Miami Beach.

At its premiere in 1875, Carmen received an undeservingly cold reception. Much to his dismay, Bizet was unable to witness this opera’s global success during his lifetime. Now a staple in the operatic canon, Carmen elegantly walks the line between the typical opéra comique and the realism of the late 19th-century verismo. This is apparent in the character development by librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy and certainly in Bizet’s evocative music.

Carmen tells the story of the ultimate femme fatale and her intoxicating hold over her many suitors. It also sheds light on the subjugation of women by men’s desires, as Carmen’s fate is eventually in the hands of her former lover. Impassioned and carefree, Carmen entices Spanish soldier Don José to fall in love with her. After two months in prison, Don José returns to find that toreador Escamillo has now Carmen’s attention. Torn between his affection for Micaëla and love towards the irresistible Carmen, Don José reaches a breaking point. In the fourth and final act, he begs Carmen to forget the past and start a new life together, but she fearlessly exclaims that she was born free and free she will die! Don José stabs her to death while the crowd clamors in the background celebrating Escamillo’s victory in yet another bullfight.

Bizet depicts each character’s drama with original motives: Carmen’s music is highly chromatic and flirtatious; Don José’s arias are luxurious, akin to Italian bel canto; Escamillo’s boastful nature is mirrored in the pompous orchestration; and Micaëla’s naiveté is enveloped in sweet harmonies.

The Overture set the tone Thursday night with a flamboyance reading as the orchestra delivered beautiful phrasing, clear articulation, and resonant build-ups, maintaining the identifiable characteristics of each recurring motif.

The young musicians and singers showed great commitment to their developing craft and pushed through with vigor, even though the acoustic was not always favorable. A modern multipurpose amphitheater, the venue posed numerous challenges for the artists.

Gibson was relentless in his leadership of the orchestra, soloists, and the choir—which was unfortunately inaudible from the balcony—as well as the offstage brass and percussion. He managed to quickly overcame quite a few synchronization issues. 

What suffered the most, however, was the balance within the orchestra—brass and percussion too often overpowered the strings and—even more crucially— the voices, which failed to project  with sufficient clarity of diction over Gibson’s robust orchestra.

Kim Stanish, as Carmen, commanded the stage well. Her portrayal of the exotic, sensuous, free-spirited gypsy was subtle but effective. Stanish possesses a rich mezzo timbre and apt agility for the melismatic turns of phrases. Her luring disposition in the Habanera “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” were matched by subtle vocal nuances.

Tenor Michael Ash, as Don José, carried the emotional weight of his role with great stamina. His performance got better as the night progressed, gaining in vocal projection and more impactful delivery of the text. Ash traversed his vocal range and dynamics quite seamlessly especially in the “Flower Song” (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”). 

One of the standouts of the evening was Erin Cheeseborough as Micaëla. Her Act 3 aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” soared with an emotionally charged rendition communicating where Micaëla finds strength after being deeply hurt by Don José.

Wei Chen as Escamillo displayed good character commitment although he was lacking in vocal consistency. In a secondary role, Jose Vazquez as Zuniga was by far the most believable actor on stage, marrying effortlessly stage movement and dexterity with vocal control and musical intensity.

While a trying night for the artists due mostly to elements beyond their control, the overall effort and attention to detail set forth by the entire production team were admirable and provided a worthy learning experience for these young artists.

[Carmen poster design: © Moira Risen]

The Miami Beach Classical Music Festival continues with Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream 7:30 p.m. Friday, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo 1:30 p.m. Saturday, and Carmen with a different cast 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Posted in Performances

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Fri Jul 22, 2022
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