Opera Review: Carmen

Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is one of the most popular and most frequently performed in the repertoire. Much of the appeal comes from the fact that Bizet was (and is) one of the best composers of melodies. His music is catchy without being corny, at once both beautiful and powerful. Sadly, Bizet died young, leaving behind only a handful of operas, his famous “L’Arlesienne” suite, and the oft-performed Symphony in C. Of these, “Carmen” is the perennial favorite.

Seattle Opera’s decision to perform “Carmen” as the fall opera for 2011 is a safe one – large crowds are guaranteed, for no matter how poorly done, the music is worth the price of admission. Luckily for said crowds, there are many other reasons to attend this production of Carmen.

I saw the Silver Cast in Dress Rehearsal and listened to the first three acts of the Gold Cast Broadcast on the radio, and both times I was captivated by the drama and romanticism the opera presents. From the opening, triumphal strains of the overture to the last dark chords of the evening, I was transported to 19th century Spain and was only too happy to be there.

As the title character, Malgorzata Walewska was weaker than I would have liked. Though her rich mezzo was pleasing to the ear, she lacked the sinuous movements that a true Carmen requires and she frequently looked annoyed onstage, detracting from her performance. Some of the problem may be the fault of the stage director, who made other choices I didn’t like (to be discussed later).

As the love-struck and increasingly violent soldier Don José, Fernando de la Mora gave the most captivating performance of the evening. Though at first he seemed strained, his voice warmed up over the evening and the final act was a true tour de force, helped by his superb acting abilities. Don José, if played incorrectly, comes across as a jerk. De la Mora’s interpretation allowed the audience to sympathize with him and added immensely to the overall performance.

As the “other man” (the bullfighter Escamillo) Michael Todd Simpson seemed to have the proper amount of charisma necessary for the character. Sadly, on the night I saw him he was only marking the role, as he had a mild illness. What I heard was pleasant to listen to – his voice seemed rich enough. I later listened to his performance a few nights later and had a similar impression – his singing is nice enough. But what perplexed me were his musical choices, particularly the notes he chose to hold. They seemed random, strained, and not in sync with the orchestra.

Finally, as the innocent country girl Micaëla, Caitlin Lynch gave a truly lovely performance. Her voice was sweet and pure and the emotional resonance captivated me (especially during “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”)

My problems with the opera were mainly technical:

  • I objected to the unnecessary violence at the end of Act II when the minor character of Zuniga (the excellent Donovan Singletary) was shot. This is not in the libretto and takes away from the central storyline.
  • The sets were a little dull, though they were at least accurate to the period. The set for the last act worked best for me, while the others (especially Act III) lacked imagination. However, I did enjoy reading the “graffiti” on the walls of the cigarette factory in Act I.
  • Micaëla’s costume in Act I was horrible – she is supposed to be a young girl and was dressed like a middle-aged matron. Caitlin Lynch is not particularly old, so the blame for this rests solely on the costume designer. On the other hand, the rest of the costumes were phenomenal, especially those in Act IV. I especially enjoyed watching as Carmen’s costumes grew redder as the story went by.
  • The ballet at the beginning of Act IV was distracting, though the short ballet during the overture was a nice touch of foreshadowing.
  • The castanet playing!!!! Oh my goodness, it was truly awful! Both the Gold and Silver cast Carmens could not play them during the aria “Près des ramparts de Seville” and this was distracting. It would have been so much easier and more effective to have had a percussionist in the pit play castanets while Carmen mimed it.

Despite these minor annoyances, I repeat that I enjoyed myself greatly – it was nice to escape the rain of Seattle and spend some time in sun-drenched Seville.

“Carmen” has left the Seattle Opera, but you can get a little of that sunny feeling by listening to CD‘s and watching DVD‘s provided by the Seattle Public Library.

Evan, Teen Advisory Group
Northeast Branch

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