Friday, June 13, 2014

Cincinnati Opera rolls out 2014 season with a dramatically fulfilling, well-sung 'Carmen'

You can encounter darker versions of "Carmen" than Cincinnati Opera is presenting, but the original's balance of gaiety and grim obsession seems worth representing, playing to Georges Bizet's strengths as a composer. That's what this production has going for it, buoyed up by glorious singing.

In Thursday night's opening performance, there was no fussing about time and place. We were looking at Seville, Spain, and its environs of about 180 years ago. The background is ordinary life there — in the public square, in taverns, in the pageantry and blood-lust of the bullfight — not at that town's aristocratic level, at which a couple of enduring comic operas by Mozart and Rossini take place.

The unit set was cleverly adapted to suit each of the four acts, with the greatest stretch coming in the third act. Too many steps and structures, even in mist and shadow, couldn't come up to the "wild and picturesque place in the mountains" the libretto calls for. When the timorous Micaela, once again seeking her intended, enters the scene calling it a wild place, it's best to take it as a figure of speech.

The set was most useful in the first and fourth acts, which is where the crucial polarization between the free gypsy spirit of Carmen and the troubled soldier Don Jose is set forth and concluded. The plaza outside the cigar factory (Act 1) and the exterior of the bullfight arena (Act 4) have all the atmosphere needed for the tragedy to strike home.

Mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi had the requisite lower range in her admirably focused voice to put across the determination of Carmen to be her own woman, even when that means accurately foreseeing her violent death. The cards are sunnier predictors for her smuggler girlfriends Frasquita and Mercedes, and the "card trio" in this production is a masterstroke, with Carmen physically as well as vocally separated from the sprightly duo.

Escamillo and Carmen, dressed to the nines for the corrida procession.
Alain Gauthier's stage direction always makes Carmen  a strong center of attention; Rishoi justifies the intense interest the gypsy inevitably attracts.  Similarly a cynosure, but of a higher social standing, is Escamillo, the toreador who wins Carmen's heart. Baritone Daniel Okulitch displayed the needed bravado as the reigning corrida celebrity; he seemed to drink in the acclaim whenever he was onstage. When he literally takes a lengthy swig of wine from a bottle, the worshipful revelers cheer that, too.

Escamillo recognizes that Carmen's romantic interests are short-term, probably because his are as well. For the time being, however, they are made for each other; a soldier-turned-bandit with a tattered conscience doesn't have a prayer.

Gauthier has William Burden as Don Jose painfully divided from first to last. He doesn't just loosen the rope around Carmen's wrist after she's been arrested in a catfight at work; he removes it, and she quickly demonstrates her zest for freedom to him. Then he binds her again; the plan is in place to let her escape, with the promise of an evening reunion at Lillas Pastia's tavern. And at the opera's end, on the very verge of stabbing his defiantly unfaithful lover, Don Jose hesitates, allowing her to go behind him briefly toward the arena of Escamillo's triumph. Only at that moment can he acknowledge how unbearable the loss of Carmen would be by grabbing her and plunging the knife in.

Burden sensitively projected this divided nature in singing that was always genuine and fervent. His Don Jose is truly tempted to return to the straight-and-narrow life, moved by his ailing mother's devotion (conveyed to him by Micaela, sturdily sung by Laquita Mitchell). Yet he is also unable to shed his attraction to the dark side — Don Jose's shady past is only hinted at here — along with the delusion that he is capable of winning the loyalty of his untrammeled beloved.

William Burden's Don Jose projected inner conflict.
In contrast, the corporal's commanding officer finds Carmen strongly appealing, but without letting his feelings overwhelm him. Nathan Stark's Zuniga is a confident rival who will take his pursuit only so far, and knows when it's time to give up. Smugglers Dancairo and Remendado (Sumner Thompson and Aaron Blake) take care of suggesting the wisdom of doing so, dropping their buffo personas.

Those had been charmingly displayed in the witty, scheming quintet with Rishoi plus Alexandra Schoeny and Elizabeth Pojanowski as the fetching Frasquita and Mercedes. Joseph Lattanzi as Corporal Morales winningly established the atmosphere of leering gallantry and idleness in the opera's first scene, though 21st-century squeamishness about bad habits reduced visual support for the prominent praise the libretto (seconded by the music) gives to smoking.

Marc Piollet conducted the performance; the orchestra sounded especially sensitive to the wonderful entr'acte music. Coordination with the stage flagged only in the quintet and in the fourth-act mass ensemble, both times briefly. Otherwise, everything that  makes "Carmen" one of a handful of surefire operatic hits worldwide was in evidence here Thursday night.