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This review by Alan Mallach was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 28, 2000. All rights reserved.

Review: Opera Festival of New Jersey’s `Carmen’

E-mail: AlanMallach@princetoninfo.com

With its new production of Bizet’s "Carmen,"

Opera Festival of New Jersey continues its exploration of the operas

that form the core of the Romantic operatic repertoire. Few operas,

indeed, are more central to operatic life than "Carmen." With

its powerful realism and daring mixture of popular song, operetta

and dark tragedy, it has enthralled audiences and scholars alike since

its 1875 debut. In the hands of Opera Festival, it becomes once again

a lively, entertaining, and ultimately gripping evening of music theater.

Under conductor Richard Tang Yuk’s energetic yet sensitive leadership,

Bizet’s music comes brilliantly to life. At the same time, for all

its merits, this production falls short of the standard that one has

come to expect of Opera Festival productions.

The heart of the production is Suzanna Guzman’s Carmen, a beautifully

realized and executed rendition of opera’s ultimate femme fatale.

Moving across the stage fluently and gracefully, she effectively captures

the spirit of the Gypsy dancer who wins the heart of every man who

crosses her path. In the final analysis, she is a good Carmen, but

not a great Carmen.

Guzman dominates the stage with her presence, but to be a great Carmen

one must dominate vocally as well, an achievement beyond her means.

While she makes the most of her vocal opportunities, her voice is

not a particularly large or beautiful one. While her famous set pieces,

the "Habanera" and "Seguidilla" of the first act,

are effective and enjoyable, she is at her best in the intensely private

dramatic moments with Don Jose in Act II and again in Act IV, where

vocal prowess is less important than emotional power.

The rest of the cast is uneven. Gerard Powers as Don Jose has a fine,

ringing tenor voice, which is heard to fine effect in his Act II "Flower

Song." As an actor, however, he leaves a great deal to be desired.

His response to Carmen’s seduction, in the central dramatic action

of the first act, seem abrupt and unconvincing. Ironically, while

opera singers are generally exhorted to move around the stage more,

Powers might well be urged to move around less, and to focus his movements

more on the drama of the scene and the emotion of his character. Michaela,

whom one tends to imagine as a wispy teenager (she is, after all,

supposed to be only 17), is sung by the rather more Brunnhilde-like

Karen Fergurson. Her voice is breathy, though, and tended to turn

harsh and piercing on high notes and in climactic passages. Kristopher

Irmiter is an effective and resonant Escamillio, who navigates the

generally low-lying part crisply, and shows a nice lyrical quality

in his Act IV duet with Carmen.

Among the smaller roles, Dominic Inferrera is particularly enjoyable

as Morales. The orchestra and chorus both play well, although, perhaps

because of the location of my seat, I found the orchestral balance

a problem, with the brass regularly overwhelming not only the rest

of the orchestra, but the singers as well.

This production is effectively, but in some important respects, questionably

staged. A single basic set, an arrangement of stairs, is successfully

adapted to capture the distinctive setting of each of the four acts,

although the presence of staircases in the mountains of Act III adds

an incongruous note. Elizabeth Bachman’s staging is full of vitality,

and offers both effective tableaux, particularly at the beginning

of each act, and lively secondary action, particularly in Act I.

At the same time, she doubts the inability of music

and libretto to speak for themselves. While that may be acceptable

with some weaker works, it is far less so when one is dealing with

an opera as brilliant, and fully realized in both words and music,

as "Carmen." A small but not insignificant example is her

decision to have Don Jose kill Zuniga at the end of Act II. While

it is true that he indeed does so in Merimee’s novel, from which the

opera was (very loosely) adapted, the context is completely different.

In the opera, to show Jose as a cold-blooded killer at all, let alone

as early as the second act, distorts both his personality and the

overall dramatic trajectory of the work.

Far worse, though, is the director’s decision to bring onstage a strange

black-garbed child (or perhaps a tiny adult) as a symbol of death,

to act out a kind of dumb show with Carmen at regular intervals. This

is not only unnecessary, but distracting. In the final act, instead

of being drawn fully into the climactic scene between Carmen and Jose,

I found myself wondering instead at what point the director would

bring on the black-garbed child. Predictably enough, it eventually

arrived, coming onstage in a strange mechanical shuffle, all but undoing

one of the most powerfully dramatic scenes in all opera.

"Carmen" is not only indisputably Bizet’s greatest opera,

it is one of the tiny handful of operas that seriously contend for

the greatest opera ever written. This production, though flawed, is

well worth seeing.

— Alan Mallach

Carmen, Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter Theater,

University Place, 609-258-2787. $22 to $82. Saturday, July 1, 8

p.m., Saturday, July 8, 8 p.m., and Friday, July 14, 8

p.m.


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