San Diego Opera Presents Bizet’s “Carmen”

San Diego Opera

Review by David Gregson 03/26/06

Co-produced with Opéra Montréal and Canadian Opera Company, San Diego Opera’s new staging of Georges Bizet’s Carmen is of more than usual interest to opera-goers for several reasons: it is designed by Michael Yeargan, the Tony Award winner whose work has been seen here before in several truly memorable productions including A Streetcar Named Desire, Cold Sassy Tree, Aida (1996) and the “Francesca Zambello” Madama Butterfly (1998/2003); it is directed by the noted on-and-off Broadway stage director, Mark Lamos (making his debut here); and it features a putative embodiment of the title role in the form of mezzo-soprano Marina Domashenko, a fiery talent from Siberia — a land we once imagined as so frigid!

Astoundingly, some opening night patrons were resistant to Ms. Domashenko’s myriad seductive charms. Well, “De gustibus non est disputantum.” It’s difficult to imagine a more beautiful face or figure. Domashenko is yet another one of those amazing new artists that give the lie to the cliché about the fat ladies singing (although there are still plenty of those ladies around who sing pretty damn well, thank you, and often better than the slender ones). And while she’s performed Carmen enough for it to sink into her bones, she’s clearly game when it comes to taking stage direction. Carmen is allegedly her “signature” role, but she plays it here in San Diego rather differently than she did in San Francisco (June/July 2002). She has a whole slew of smashing costumes to wear, and Lamos has given her many opportunities to show her flexibility as an actress. She is outstanding in the way she makes the transition from flirtatious vixen to defiant fatalist to doomed victim.

Ms. Domashenko is also gifted with an authentically beautiful mezzo-soprano voice, although she is somewhat stingy in the way she reveals it to us. Many of her phrases appeared to trail off during the important numbers of Act One, including, of course, the famous “Habanera” and “Sequidilla.” Not until Carmen is fired up by Don José’s fecklessness in Act Two did Domashenko’s voice emerge in its full delectability. In general, more full-out singing would help this diva make the desired impression — especially in acoustically uneven venues like San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House and our own Civic Theatre, both of which contain some truly bad “dead” spaces.

One reads in the program that Ms. Domashenko “graduated with honors as a conductor and pianist from the Kemerovo Arts Institute and studied singing at the Ekaterinburg Conservatoire.” In other words, she is a complete musician as well as a gifted stage actress; therefore, she very likely realizes that true greatness in operatic singing comes from an ability to plunge into the interior life of a character. Much of what impresses audiences these days is, to be blunt, superficial. A dazzling surface easily distracts us from what used to really matter the most in opera. There have been some less-than-utterly gorgeous looking Carmen’s who cannot dance all that well or play the castanets and who look vaguely ridiculous as they vamp about the stage, but they can still tear your heart out in the Card Song of Act Three. One wonders if this is not a dying art: the ability to dig deep inside oneself to find the essence of things and then express this through music.

When Puerto Rican tenor César Hernández sang Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca with Opera Pacific last November, he seemed to be having slight intonation problems. With his SDO Don José coming up, one hoped the problem was a passing one, but his pitch continued to stray. The audience hardly seemed to notice, however, and his performance was warmly received. In San Diego last night the response to Hernández’s performance as Don José was little different. At its best the voice had a pleasant Italianate ring to it. (French opera sung by native French singers is today an esoteric subject.) Physically Hernández reminds one a bit of Domingo. His acting is never less than what critics like to call “committed.” In other words, he’s a solid performer. Vocally he sounds best in a highly reverberant ambience (as when he sang offstage last night just before his Act Two entrance into the tavern of Lillas Pastia). But his pitch is intermittently “approximate,” enough so to make this listener rather feel rather queasy at times.

And now, here comes our handsome matador – “Vivat! Vivat le Toréro! Vivat Escamillo!” – and who should arrive but a guy in a really, really drab New Mexico dude-ranch outfit, complete with sunglasses, a string tie, yellow vest, cowboy boots and a western hat. Poor American baritone Malcolm Mackenzie! Even singing one of the most famous arias ever written couldn’t counteract the indignity of this costume – one of a handful of misfires created by Francois St.-Aubin. Sartorially, Mackenzie faired somewhat better in the last act, but it’s safe to say that many elements of this production worked overtime to deflate Escamillo’s ego. Perhaps it was deliberate, but as the possessor of a fine voice and ample talent, Mackenzie deserves better than this. It’s hard to wow the crowd when you look ridiculous.

So – the production – the sets and costumes now insinuate themselves into a critique of the performers. It was inevitable. It’s Act One and here comes American soprano Barbara Divis, doing her best to assert herself in the thankless role of Micaëla. (One always wishes this goody-goody girl would just get lost; and her admittedly lovely and moving third-act aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante,” is rarely welcome because it so seriously holds up the story’s action at a late point in the evening.) This Micaëla is costumed like Heidi. She looks like an illustration on the wrapper of a bar of Swiss chocolate. Still, Divis imbues the part with a great deal of sympathy, and she sings sweetly and well in a voice marked by a very fast beat.

Completing an excellent cast roster are baritone Jeff Mattsey as Dancaïre, tenor Beau Palmer as Remendado, bass-baritone James Scott Sikon as Morales, bass baritone Wayne Tigges as Zuniga, mezzo-soprano Lisa Agazzi as Mercedes and soprano Malinda Haslett as Frasquite – all of them American singers. These artists are not costume casualties, thank goodness, although the overall look of the “updated” show must certainly constitute a we-thought-it-was-extinct-already aesthetic of “Postmodernism” – a little of this, a little of that from a variety of 20th-century timeframes. “Native” costumes are harder to peg as to the exact era, but St.-Aubin’s creations are a deliberate mishmash of things from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. According to some advance PR, the production is also meant to evoke another place (that is, it’s not necessarily Spain) as well as a different era, but, rest assured, Lillas Pastia’s place is still “Près des ramparts de Séville,” and it’s certainly someplace where bullfighting is a national pastime.

Still, it’s wonderful to see the SDO stepping away from business as usual and the show has many interesting things going for it. The front “curtain” is a set of slider panels painted to resemble a rather beautiful example of ‘50s abstract expressionism. These panels shift colors dramatically when exposed to the superlative lighting designs of Robert Wierzel (whose work throughout the entire opera remains just remarkable!) In the overture, when the fate motive appears in the orchestra, the panels crack open – and later we see a huge image of Carmen’s face on an inner wall. The inner wall, by the way, resembles the slider-panel painting turned upside down and is scrawled with graffiti at the bottom.

Each act has a separate set, the least successful being the large arch, iron grillwork and upstage steps in Act One. We, the audience, are trapped behind the iron grillwork in the officers quarters, watching with these men as the people outside come and go. It’s so exasperating to trying look through this no-doubt symbolic set of bars that even Lamos apparently gets fed up with it all and pulls the bars up, thank goodness, about halfway through the act. After all, there’s a great deal going on out there and we’d like to see it. The great chorus of militaristic kids imitating the adults, for instance.

The tavern of Act Two is a very modern al fresco affair, attractively lighted – but here the attention that should go to dancing and related tavern frolics is defused by the stylistically correct but not terribly exciting choreography of Juanita Franco. From this point on, the sets get more interesting – as does the stage picture. Act Three is simply packed with smugglers smuggling things – paintings, crystal chandeliers, statues of the Madonna, silver plate — you name it. And the backdrop depicts an enormous palmist’s chart. It’s not your standard Carmen rocky mountain pass full of weary brigands sitting on their guns and sacks of loot.

Act Four is problematic, but intriguing. We see a slice of the bullfighting arena complete with live aficionados olé-ing the proceedings. Carmen’s murder in a remote corner under the grandstands, however, goes unnoticed. “You can arrest me” (“Vous pouvez m’arrêter”) confesses José to a non-existent group of witnesses – but many of us have wanted “director’s opera” and had better not complain now that we’ve got it!

A word or two on the choral work and the intricate ensembles – the latter being among the primary glories of Bizet’s masterpiece. That fabulous second-act quintet, for instance: “Quand il s’agit de tromperie.” The musical challenge of simply staying together for this number can easily be rendered more difficult by a stage director who wants little tricky movements going on, here and there and to and fro. Frankly, stage movement impaired musical “togetherness” throughout the evening, the fight of the cigarette girls being only one example where things fell apart. The San Diego Opera Chorus usually does an excellent job under the direction of Timothy Todd Simmons, but choristers may require the next performance before they reach their comfort level.

Last but hardly least is the performance of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the dedicated and hard-working Karen Keltner. Trumpet-call malfunctions are a trivial thing, but where was the fire, the passion, the sweep of the score? Perhaps things will improve with the run.

Bizet’s Carmen

San Diego Civic Theatre

March 25, 28, 31 and April 2 (matinee), 5

CAST:

Carmen: Marina Domashenko

Don José; César Hernández

Escamilo: Malcolm MacKenzie

Michaela: Barbara Divis

Dancaire: Jeff Mattsey

Frasquita: Malinda Haslett

Mercedes: Lisa Agazzi

Morales: James Scott Sikon

Remendado: Beau Palmer

Zuniga: Wayne Tigges

Conductor: Karen Keltner

Director: Mark Lamos

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San Diego Civic Theatre

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