Amidst buzz on the recent departure of its artistic director, Dennis Hanthorn, the Atlanta Opera opened its 2012-2013 season with Bizet’s Carmen to an enthusiastic reception on Saturday, November 10. The evening was led Carl and Sally Gable Music Director Arthur Fagen, whose polished baton emphasized the vitality and sparkling qualities of this familiar score. A clever leader, he understood the proclivities of his singers, and allowed them to luxuriate their lines when inspired without ever becoming a detriment to the dramatic gestures dictated by the score. He was also a match to the complexity of the piece, and successfully anchored the company in the most intricate sections, even managing to realign the massive act two finale when the ensemble got a tad out of sync.
To be sure, it was a more musically rewarding evening than a theatrically cohesive one. The sets for this production of Carmen (which came to Atlanta via way of Austin Lyric Opera) are the work of designer Allen Charles Klein. They are comprised of colorful and picturesque depictions of a bright and lively Seville, and do much to propel the story. Matters are less well developed when director Jeffrey Marc Buchman takes over. To be fair, things started well enough. Mr. Buchman, particularly through his work with the excellent Atlanta Opera Chorus, has taken great pains to frame a vibrant Seville, and lavished the stage with a wealth of detail. Background characters brilliantly carried out their own personal plots in minimal yet effective manner. Further credit, in fact, should be given the ladies of the Atlanta Opera chorus members, who were not afraid to get seriously physical during the skirmish sequence featured in the first act. But what started as charming local color quickly tipped the scale over towards light comedy, an atmosphere which the audience seemed unwilling to shake off as the opera progresses towards darker territory. This, combined with the underplaying of the title character’s more predatory nature, had the unintended effect of nullifying the dramatic punch of the third and fourth act; an unfortunate miscalculation which resulted with the audience is openly laughing during much of Carmen’s fourth act, including the opera’s terrifying final duet. Thus, the overall presentation, despite several isolated moments or excellence ranked incomplete, and when considering the level of talent compiled by the company, it was a real shame.
As Carmen, Spanish mezzo-soprano Maria Jose Montiel has all the ingredients to make Bizet’s eponymous heroine come to life in a spectacular way. An attractive, tall, dark-haired siren, she is built with the necessary endowments to entice the unlucky men who happen to look her way. More importantly, she is also gifted with the luxurious instrument to match her charms. The voice is velvety, dark, generally sultry, and capable of significant volume when the situation called for it. Unfortunately, for a recipe to come together it is also necessary for the ingredients to be stirred properly, and in this production her impersonation over-emphasized the more coquettish and kittenish qualities of the part at the expense of Carmen’s more predatory tendencies. Essentially, she was presented as a flirtatious, giggly girl during the opera’s first two acts who then turns victim in the second half of the evening. This robbed the opera of its femme fatale, harldy explained Don Jose’s dependence on her, and left the audience with is a disturbing tale of domestic violence (a valid situation to be sure, but it ain’t Carmen).
Musically speaking, it was a happier affair, though not a faultless one. Ms. Montiel’s voice is substantial and generously unleashed, but it is produced by a broad approach and happiest when allowed to simmer over long lines. Her entrance scene, the famous Habanera, was delivered as a cheeky public warning via a playful and smokey mezzo-soprano. When left alone with Don Jose, extensive cuts in their recitative section placed great pressures on Carmen’s next number, the Seguidilla, to explain away Don Jose’s attraction to her. Here, Ms. Montiel’s sturdy execution was serviceable, but a general lack of “face” in the voice, combined with a loss of some of the velvet heard earlier, failed to seduce, and though she went as far as including an optional high B on her way towards her final reprise as extra credit, the overall effect was found wanting. A similar impression characterized most of her work in at Lilla’s Pastia’s, which she opened with the complicated Chanson Boheme (“Les tringles des sistres tintaient”). As in the case with the Seguidilla, she had no trouble creating an impressive wall of sound but the tone suffered as she shifted from one register to another. She was also constantly tested by the role’s high tessitura throughout the night. Reservations aside, there were many fine touches. She wrestled Escamillo’s attention away from her girlfriends with a seductively calculated “L’amour” during the toreador’s entrance aria, and once alone with Don Jose, she expertly handled a set of castanets as she danced for her beau.
The third act showcased her greatest lyric moment as she faced the fortune teller in the aria “En vain pour éviter”; her expertly suspended messa voce chiseled the solo into a deeply moving experience. The final act was a nervous affair, and the culmination of an ultimately unsatisfying realization. Up until this moment, this Carmen has never really been in control of the fate she has so willingly embraced, and she was both defiant and afraid. It was an interpretation to which Ms. Montiel was fully committed nevertheless, complete with sobs, extreme digs to the chest voice, shrieks, along other dramatic excesses. Under the guidance of a different repetiteur, it would warrant a second listening to see what this talented young lady can make out of Bizet’s heroine. As things stand, it was a respectable yet incomplete attempt.
Ms. Montiel’s partnership with the Don Jose of Fernando de la Mora was vocally interesting while theatrically ill-matched. The Mexican lyric tenor has been a familiar presence in the international circuit for over two decades, and has gathered a significant reputation in the French and bel canto repertoires. As heard on opening night, however, it was the case of a singer who sings very well despite a voice that has begun its inescapable journey towards decay. A significant portion of the evening found the tenor struggling between voix-mixte and head voice, and there were some segments in the middle of his scale which were no longer comfortably supported.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, he was the more interesting artist in the cast, employing a wealth of nuance through production to phrase his part. Now, I realize that I contradict myself by earlier describing the technical limitations of singers as demerits, and now I am about to claim that this gentleman, with significant shortcomings, outranks the rest. But here is the deal with that: Serious artists are capable of making quantitative evaluations obsolete by the very strengths of their heart and personality, and I happen to find more value in a great singer with a diminished voice than a fresh voice with unclear artistic vision. Whatever the case, Mr. De la Mora required the entirety of the first act to render his instrument pliable, and he came close to a full collapse towards the end of it (audible cracks during the “Ah! si je t’aime, Carmen, tu m’aimeras!”). These difficulties aside, he returned much improved in the second act, and remained a solid exponent of the french school of declamation for the remainder of the evening. One of the joys of this repertoire is the sound of the French language itself, and how its proclivities dictates the very manner in which the French melody is produced from the singer’s throat. Mr. De la Mora may not be the last word on this subject, but he was the main singer onstage who consistently utilized his diction as a means to propel the music and give weight to his phrasing. Examples of this could be found early in his trouble filled first act, during his important duet with Micaela and the subsequent recitative that follows it. How he pondered over the letter and read its words to himself, arriving at its logical and heartfelt conclusion. During the second act, he was capable of much suavity, and sang an inward and touching rendition of Don Jose’s famous “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” complete with a very accomplished diminuendo on the aria’s high B flat.
In terms of his stage deportment, Mr. De la Mora found himself in an odd situation: That of being the big bad wolf prone to assault a flighty yet faultless dame. Visually he was not the most dashing of Don Joses, but he was appropriately overly passionate, sensitive to his helplessness and prone to violently react against it from time to time. The most pathetic and touching moment of the entire evening belonged to him, this being the scene where Escamillo tells him of Carmen’s latest affair (this being Don Jose) and how it did not survive past her usual expiration mark. As the violin solo, Bizet’s brilliant depiction of Don Jose’s own common sense slapping him in the face, washes over the two, Mr. De la Mora let out a hurt yet knowing “Carmen!”. Towards the end of the act, the tenor was in full swing, and bordered unto the spinto classification as he threatened Carmen before his departure. It was this brand of vocalism which he would employ in the last scene of the opera, the voice of a broken human being openly who has openly shed the last ounce of dignity for the one he loves, and reacts accordingly when dejected.
As Micaela, soprano Melissa Shippen was a marvelous physical representation of the antithesis of the opera’s title character. With her blonde, angelic looks, she would have pleased the management of the Opera Comique, which requested the addition of this part as a way to soften the opera’s controversial subject matter. Bizet, however, has written very great music for her, and there have been many examples where a magnificent Micaela took the night away from a failing Carmen (in the 60s and 70s, Mirella Freni kept all her Carmens on their toes). Ms. Shippen is not yet that singer, and though her voice executed its task well enough, her singing was neither glamorous nor creative enough to push her part past its supporting designation. She was the first principal singer to appear onstage at the beginning of act one, and her participation was pleasant enough. Her first big test took place during her duet with Don Jose (“parle-moi de ma mere”,) and it tested her instrument past its comfort zone. The singer must achieve a panoramic quality in the phrase beginning “Et tu lui diras que sa mere”, and though this was attempted by the young soprano her resources did not quite add up to deliver the effect. She was also not capable of creating a significant wall of sound, which lessened the effect of her act three effort, “Je dit que rien ne m’epouvant”.
She was bettered by the Escamillo of baritone Aleksey Bogdanov, who had the thankless task of entering the stage and immediately sing one of the most famous numbers in the bass-baritone repertoire completely cold. He was the possessor of an even, well-placed voice capable of caressing the suave contours of his music. During his altercation with Don Jose in the third act, he was appropriately debonair and cocky, and reserved his sweetest tone for his final exchanges with Carmen, the very brief but all important “Sit u m’aimes, Carmen”. Looks wise, he exuded a dangerous sexuality onstage, specially when handling his matador’s cape. Of the remaining cast members, the standout was the lieutenant Zuniga of bass-baritone Tyler Simpson, whose imposing stage deportment (he towered over everyone!) and large, distinctive voice demanded attention whenever he graced the stage.
The Atlanta Opera’s 2012-2013 follows Bizet’s Carmen with a run of Verdi’s La traviata this coming March. For more information, please visit the companys website at: http://www.atlantaopera.org/