Carmen in Philly: Another mantilla bites the dust

Last night the Opera Company of Philadelphia opened their 2011-12 season at the Academy of Music with Carmen. For the first time the performance was broadcast to a big screen out on Independence Mall for an audience of reportedly 5,500 people. They got a standard Carmen elevated to memorable by a few great performances, namely Rinat Shaham’s fantastic gypsy and Ailyn Pérez’s gorgeous Micaëla.

Bizet, Carmen. Opera Company of Philadelphia, 9/30/2011. Production by David Gately, conducted by Corrado Rovaris with Rinat Shaham (Carmen), David Pomeroy (Don José), Ailyn Pérez (Micaëla), Jonathan Beyer (Escamillo).

Maybe it was the free champagne before the show (doled out in tiny portions in plastic cups) that made the audience punchy.  I don’t think of Carmen as a particularly funny opera (you know, he kills her) but evidently the people of Philadelphia disagree with me on this one, the gens certainly found the opera drôle. David Gately’s production does tend towards the opéra-comique side of things and has a few bits that are clearly intended as comedy. I liked the soldiers threatening the children to get them to stop singing, I can’t stand those squeaky buggers. But for the most part the production has everything you would expect to have in Carmen and nothing that you would not. It is a truth universally acknowledged in traditional Carmens that Don José will attempt to rip off Carmen’s mantilla in the final scene. Check. One pleasant surprise was that the production uses spoken dialogue rather than recits. Some of the spoken French was iffy, but it’s still the right choice, I think (cough Met uses recits cough).

The heart of this production is Rinat Shaham’s Carmen. She’s very experienced in this role and you can tell. Her super-smart Carmen is two steps ahead of everyone else, is always doing as she likes and never tries harder than she has to (without ever appearing uninvolved). This extended to her singing, which had a beautiful naturalness. She never pushed her dark mezzo and her French sounded very idiomatic to me. She’s got a real deep mezzo timbre, but never sounds stretched at the top. Everything worked together and convinced, plus she has that wit and spark that keeps her sympathetic and human. (Also I think it is hilarious how she wears way more clothes in this production than she did when I saw her in Salome…  as the Page.)

None of the other cast members had this level of polish and effortlessness. Closest was Ailyn Pérez’s Micaëla. I think this was the first time I’ve heard her (I may have heard her at AVA but I’m not sure) and her rich, warm lyric soprano sounds like the real deal. All she needs to do is iron out some wayward high notes and odd French vowels and she’ll be there. Less satisfying was David Pomeroy’s blank Don José. He has a large, even and strong voice (pulling an effective “démon” in the final scene), but showed little musicality or range of color, hitting the “toi” in the flower song at forte. His acting was indicated and uncommitted. My last two Josés were Alagna and Kaufmann so I may be spoiled but he did nothing for me. Jonathan Beyer did a good job managing the tricky tessitura of Escamillo, however he never stood out from the scenery. Escamillo needs flair.

Corrado Rovaris led the orchestra in an effective if not quite electrifying interpretation. I’ve heard this unreliable orchestra many times and was happy that they were having a good night. The chorus also sounded excellent, though their stage direction left a lot to be desired. The set, a brownish Seville square with a high walkway, seemed to suffer a paucity of entrances and exits, and once the chorus finally had finished entering, they tended to stay put, sometimes grabbing the nearest member of the opposite sex when required to act amorous.

Director Gately opens the curtain at the “fate” part of the prélude to discover Carmen reading her cards. While it is true to the letter of the libretto–she says that the cards have already told her she and José will die together–I find it problematic for two reasons. First, it deprives her of her great first appearance later in the opera–doesn’t that music that opens the Habañera give us a better sketch of her character than this? Shaham made a wonderful physical entrance running on at that point, seeing her sitting still, no matter how intensely, is just not as compelling an introduction.

Carmen at the Met (1)
 Carmen at the Met (2)
 Carmen at the Met (3)
Borodina/Alvarez (old production)

Second, this is a very literal production. After reading the cards, Carmen hears other people approaching and gets up and leaves. But what motivates those people to enter? The curtain usually comes up on a crowd that’s already there, they’ve just been hanging out. Here they process on for some unknown reason. And how did Carmen get out of the cigarette factory into the square to read her cards in the first place? Judging by that bell, they’ve got quite a routine there. So even if you want to see Carmen as a Violetta type who knows she’s doomed, and I’m not going to argue with you about that as a valid interpretation, this is not the way to portray that. Maybe if it weren’t framed so literally–for example just happening in a bare spot that fades out instead of having her exit as people arrive–it would work better.

I would also like to note that this production included the return of the Set Piece of the Damned, which I first saw in this company’s production of Richard Danielpour’s opera Margaret Garner. This set piece is an electric campfire with a visible electrical cord that has been visibly taped down to the stage, here appearing (in duplicate, even) in Act 3. I cursed the thing then, and I do again now. The amount of incredibly visible (from the high-up Amphitheater) glow tape is also a problem–you can be safe while also being a little more subtle than that.

This may sound like quibbling, but maybe these small issues have something to do with the audience never being able to take it seriously and giggling through the whole thing. Such carelessness with details detracts from the total emotional effect. (Remember that I am that person who is convinced that Velcro is the Scourge of Opera.) This is also a way of explanation for my Anna Bolena review. I seemed to like David McVicar’s production more than anyone else, and this is probably surprising to you if you know my general dislike of traditionalism. But I think McVicar, for all his dullness in this one, doesn’t often make this kind of dramaturgical mistake, and the Anna Bolena held together in a way that is very difficult to achieve in bel canto, or actually in any opera. This Carmen lapsed on that count, and never seemed quite worthy of its protagonist. I was left a little underwhelmed, which is a bummer.

I received a lot of my early operatic education as an Opera Company of Philadelphia subscriber while I was in university, and I saw the company through a lot of ups and downs.* I think they’re on a bit of an up right now, but it’s a little hard to judge by one show. Just toss those electric campfires onto a real fire somewhere and keep on trucking, guys.

Carmen continues through October 14, you can get tickets here.

 The Academy lighting seems just right for curtain call photos, here it is (from the high-up Amphitheater, in this photo you can see at the top the giant safety bar that cuts the view of the stage in half when you sit in one of the first few rows):

*I didn’t see their previous Carmen but it was by all accounts a down, with an interpolated private eye character informing us that “this Carmen girl, she’s from the wrong side of the tracks.”

Top and third photo from OCP website, copyright unknown. Shaham/Pomeroy photo copyright Philadelphia Enquirer.

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  1. Yes, Zerbinetta! You are spoilt…but that's what we love about you!!! Please come back soon to this side of the pond so we spoil you more!!! Remember Kaufmann is coming for Les Troyens at the ROH next year, but on 24.10 he'll be at the Royal Festival Hall for a concert accompanied by the RPO. No more the quaint little charming Wigmore this time!!