San Diego Opera “Carmen” shines in the smaller roles

Monday, May 16, 2011

San Diego Opera presents Bizet’s "Carmen"

The featured stars are not this production’s most satisfying performers!

By David Gregson

As seen on opening night Saturday, San Diego Opera’s production of Bizet’s “Carmen” offered some beguiling vocal performances. Unfortunately these were Carmen’s friends, Mercédès (soprano Priti Gandhi) and Frasquita (soprano Rachel Copeland), neither of whom could be said to have the opera’s leading roles. They were delightful, however, and the highlights of the evening came from them and from their smuggler cohorts, Dancaïre (baritone Jeff Mattsey) and Le Remendado (tenor Joseph Hu). All four of these characters, of course, join Carmen for the delightful quintet, “Nous avons en tête une affaire.”

So, there you have the good news first. Never let it be said I do not emphasize the positive!

With one exception (soprano Talise Trevigne as Micaëla), the principal performances were a major disappointment. As the eponymous femme fatale of the opera’s title, mezzo soprano Nino Surguladze displayed a truly beautiful voice and face and figure, but she was almost totally unable to inhabit the role and make it her own. Her concept of the part was low-voltage cool. It might have worked in a film, but not on the opera stage. Carmen needs to manage somehow to be bigger than life, but Surguladze was not even bigger than anybody else milling about the poorly lighted stage.

The once but no-longer wonderful tenor Richard Leech played Don José as a dumb cluck wandering around Seville in a daze. He sang the whole part as loudly as possible with a voice that spread so egregiously over each note that it was often difficult to decide what pitch he might be trying to sing. There was a time in the past when I literally went back stage to congratulate Leech on his fabulous performances here — and our local audience still seems to love him. They can only love him for what he once was, not what he is now. What a shame that Salvatore Licitra, the tenor original slated for Don José, could not make it. It seems he withdrew due to “the recurrence of a serious back injury.”

And so we come to the bullfighter Escamillo, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges. During his Act Two entrance, he was sabotaged by an unflattering black costume and he tugged down his jacket so often that it became a neurotic tic rather than a gesture of macho confidence. His attempts to look graceful, flexible and dashing were stiff and awkward, as if performed by an electrified zombie. His voice was certainly impressive, but his diction was indistinct. In the famous “toréador” aria and elsewhere, panache was missing.

Fortunately, Trevigne as Micaëla offered some lyrical relief. She sang with great beauty and charm. This is a role, however, that I especially dislike: the girl is forever nagging Don José about his mother, and her long Act Three aria simply holds back the action of the story just when we are all waiting for the drama to come to a climax.

Despite the worthy contribution of our excellent San Diego Symphony and San Diego Opera Chorus, this “Carmen” did not flow well. Conductor Edoardo Müller, an old pro whom we have seen here many, many times, got things off to a rousing start with the opera’s zippy prelude, but then he seemed unable to establish a shape and flow to everything that followed.

The sets (John Conklin) and costumes (Susan Memmott-Allred) are the quintessence of dreariness, drab grey walls framing a parade of people in muted uniforms and Spanish frocks. I have been to sunny Seville recently where even the fabled bullring is painted with a crisp, glowing cheerfulness. All set designers should be required to go there before their next “Carmen”.

Stage director Sonja Frisell invented many interesting realistic things for people to do on stage, but she often ignored certain aspects of the text. Where, for instance, are all the fascinating passersby coming and going at the beginning of Act One? The soldiers are watching and commenting on a passing human parade we just do not see.

In the final confrontation of Don José and Carmen, José gives her some awfully unconvincing stage slaps. These should have been cut.

And where is the crowd of people to whom Don José is talking at the very end when he has killed Carmen? “You can arrest me” is what he says (“Vous pouvez m’arrêter”), but I think the projected titles displayed something like “Let them arrest me,” which seems like a very good translation when no crowd or policemen have gathered around to see the tragedy. Thank God, however, that Don José did not collapse over Carmen’s lifeless body (as indicated in the libretto) as this would have most certainly killed her for real.

Was it Frisell who encouraged Carmen to deliver almost everything straight to the audience instead of to the other characters on stage? It’s hard to imagine, because in general, this stage director failed to give anything adequate focus; one frequently had to look all around to see what was important. When Carmen made an exit on the left side of the stage where everything was inexplicably in darkness, you could hardly see the little flourish Carmen displayed as she went. Lost in the afternoon shadows? One had the impression lighting designer Gary Marder was simply washing the stage in an atmospheric illumination that remained unchanged and ignored our need to see things.

This whole “Carmen” is a very unfortunate misfire just at a time when SDO needs buyers for next season which includes a new opera, “Moby-Dick” – alleged to be terrific by all accounts. The opera deserves our support, but the SDO must do better than this “Carmen.”

Saturday May 147 p.m.

Tuesday May 17 7p.m.

Friday May 20 8 p.m.

Sunday May 22 2 p.m.

Carmen: Nino Surguladze

Don Jose: Richard Leech

Micaëla: Talise Trevigne

Escamillo: Wayne Tigges

Mercédès: Priti Gandhi

Dancaïre: Jeff Mattsey

Frasquita: Rachel Copeland

Remendado: Joseph Hu

Zuniga: Kevin Langan

Director: Sonja Frisell

Conductor: Edoardo Müller

See San Diego Opera for more information.

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