Festival Opera's Carmen

Carmen_stefancohen_021* Notes *
Festival Opera put on a visceral production of Carmen at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek last weekend. The staging was effective and there was a lot of great singing.

The small orchestra was conducted by Robert Mollicone, who is on the music staff at San Francisco Opera and was a Merolino back in 2011.

The staging relied heavily on projections to set the scenes, it looked to be a contemporary urban environment, replete with graffiti, highway overpasses, and the like. It did seem like the projections were on a loop, there seemed to be constant clouds of smoke in the background, which was unsettling.

Michael Mohammed's direction included two dancers, Stuck Sanders and Anthéa Colot (pictured with the chorus in Act IV, photograph by Stefan Cohen) who were very impressive. I loved how fluidly Sanders was able to move in particular, and there was such joy to the movement. They really drew me into the piece.

The cast for this was likewise engaging. Bass-baritone Matthew Lovell was suitably brutal as Zuniga. The quintet "Nous avons en tete una affaire" was memorable, baritone Daniel Cilli as the Le Dancaïre, tenor Taylor Thompson, mezzo-soprano Lily Bogas as Mercédès, and soprano Lila Khazoum as Frasquita were all very distinct but also cohesive. Baritone Young-Kwang Yoo was a charming Escamillo and soprano Hope Briggs a very sweet Micaëla.

Carmen_stefancohen_025Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz is convincing as Carmen, they certainly are seductive. But most appealing was tenor Dane Suarez as the otherwise fairly repellant Don José. Suarez's voice has plaintiveness and bright warmth, but also an interesting rawness that works for this role.

*Tattling * 
I haven't been to a Festival Opera performance since 2015, and I was surprised how easy it was to get to the theater from the BART station. I brought Axel Feldheim with me to the performance and managed not only to get on the same train as him but also found the exact car he was on. We got there so early that we were able to go to a nearby farmers market and to a boba tea place beforehand. There were also activities happening outside the theater that involved many children.

There was some pretty loud talking from some audience members but it was usually about the performance. It's always very funny to me that people need to express their thoughts aloud about how beautiful something is and they interrupt other people's experience of that very beautiful thing.

Opera San José's Carmen

CarmenOperaSJ0764_Resized-scaled* Notes *
A colorful production of Carmen opened at Opera San José last weekend with a sharp cast. Director Lillian Groag's staging is lively with supernumeraries and flamenco dancers.

Music Director Joseph Marcheso kept the orchestra fairly neat, only a few moments here and there were off-kilter. The brass were clear and the woodwinds lovely.

The set is clean, stairs and a series of arches for the most part. There were nice details, like the water pump that Carmen washes her feet in during Act I. The heavy lifting for the staging was certainly in the physicality of the performers, whether it was the adorable, dimpled Amalinaltzin De La Cruz (pictured in Act II with Eugene Brancoveanu as Escamillo) as Little Carmen or Carmen herself punching Morales in the face.

The most novel part of the production was the use of supernumerary Jim Ballard as Amor Brujo ("Bewitched Love"). We first see him during the overture cutting Carmen's braid, and he pops up throughout, ghost-like and looking more like a personification of death than love. He is quite a presence and he did many floreos (hand articulations from flamenco) as he moved across the stage.

The inclusion of four real flamenco dancers from The Flamenco Society of San José in Act II was truly exciting, they were great.

OSJ_Carmen_Richard-Trey-Smagur-as-Don-Jose_Nikola-Printz-as-Carmen_Photo-credit_Rapt-Productions_6-scaledThe Sunday matinée performance featured tenor Richard Trey Smagur (pictured with Nikola Printz as Carmen) as Don José, he shares the role with Noah Stewart. Smagur has an open, plaintive sound. Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz embodied Carmen, their voice is clear and acting very strong. My only quibble was with their castanet playing, it was tentative compared to the flamenco dancers. Otherwise, it was an enchanting and convincing performance, it was obvious why Carmen is so arresting and seductive.

I loved hearing soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Michaëla, her sound is so bright and pretty. Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu is appealing as Escamillo, there is some texture to his lower range, but he has warm resonances as well.

Bass-baritone Leo Radosavljevic was a touch quiet as Zuniga, the character was treated with a startling brutality by the smugglers, all of whom sounded quite nice, however. Soprano Teresa Castillo is a saucy, youthful Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Sanchez as Mercédès has a distinct sound from Carmen. The quintet "Quand il s’agit de tromperie" was pleasantly rounded off by tenor Jared V. Esguerra (El Remendado) and bass-baritone Rafael W. Porto (El Dancaïro). Bass-baritone Peter Morgan (Moralès) has a grainy voice that cut through the chorus.

* Tattling *
I was glad to note that the California Theatre requires proof of a booster to attend performances. It was perfectly easy to get through the line within a few minutes.

There was some plastic rustling in Row E at the beginning of the performance, but this did subside pretty quickly. More annoying was a woman who arrived late after the first intermission and had the usher get five people in Row C to stand up during the flamenco dancing to let her to her seat, only to realize this was very disruptive and had her sit in a more accessible seat in Row B.

But the most obnoxious thing was certainly at the end of the tenor's Act II aria "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" when someone's Apple Watch pinged their iPhone.

SF Opera's Carmen

37A8979* Notes * 
"Enjoy your hundredth Carmen!" teased my husband as I left for the opening of the latest production of this opera at San Francisco Opera last night. Quite an exaggeration, at best I've seen this opera twenty-five times, though I have seen this staging by Francesca Zambello way back in 2007 at Royal Opera, Covent Garden in London.

As it turns out, the performance was enjoyable. The playing was lovely, there was lots of good singing, and the production is attractive and sleek. I very much remembered the warm orange-reds of the stage and the orange tree in the middle of the stage in Act I. The set is efficient, there's no dead time in-between acts, and the performance clocks in under three hours since is only one intermission and cuts to the dialogue.

I always like Zambello's humanistic details, as with Captain Zuniga's struggle to get free when he is bound at the end of Act II and the possible observers to Carmen's tragic end up at the top of the arena. It was clear she was able to engage the audience.

Maestro James Gaffigan conducted a sprightly orchestra. The overture had a fine transparency. There were brief unfocused moments, as when the children's chorus entered or in the smugglers quintet in Act II. However, the many soli throughout the piece were all very nice, particularly the clarinet solo at the beginning of the last act.

The cast is youthful and attractive. The Adlers all were great, I especially liked mezzo Ashley Dixon and soprano Natalie Image as Mercédès and Frasquita, they are well matched and charming.

Bridges is remarkably consistent, her voice had only the slightest few catches at first. Otherwise she gave a strong, vital performance. Though her dancing lacks verve, she moves with a lank grace, and her Carmen is robust. Her Don José, tenor Matthew Polenzani, has a depth of emotional range that is palpable in his voice. In his last aria, he moves from imploring to cajoling to demanding, every phrase with a different color with an immediacy that doesn't require knowledge of French to understand.

* Tattling * 
This is a great first opera, and I hope the production brings out lots of new people, as it seems to have so far. The only problem with this is there were quite a lot of whispering and phone screens out during the music at yesterday's opening, so you won't see me at Carmen again this summer.

SF Opera's Carmen (Ginger Costa-Jackson)

_F2A5818 * Notes *
The second cast of San Francisco Opera's current Carmen (Adam Diegel as Don José and Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen in Act II pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) production was performed a day after the first. The production is consistent, and it was impressive to me seeing it this time from Row J of the orchestra level, how much of the staging read clearly from the very back of the house as I saw it the first night.

Ginger Costa-Jackson is a sexy Carmen, her acting is on point. Her ability to emote was completely clear: she was sultry, defiant, and terrified as her role warranted. Her voice doesn't have the most volume, her high notes can be shrill but her low ones are pleasant.

Adam Diegel could always be heard as Don José, his reedy, plaintive sound cut through the orchestra. There were moments of slight strain, but again, Diegel's acting was convincing and carried him through to the end, which was very moving.

Erika Grimaldi (Micaëla) was stunningly vital and had a promising SF Opera debut with this performance. I also loved Michael Sumuel as Escamillo, his robust, beautiful sound and fine acting served him well.

* Tattling * 
It was fairly quiet, there was some light talking.

From the orchestra level I was able to recognize Jamielyn Duggan (Manuelita) as someone I took dance classes with many years ago.

SF Opera's Carmen (Irene Roberts)

_B5A0984* Notes *
Calixto Bieito's new production of Carmen (The chorus in Act IV pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) San Francisco Opera marked his US debut last night. Directed here by Joan Anton Rechi, the show was not nearly as shocking as some of Bieito's work. In fact, the staging was quite deft, and there was very little of anything that could be seen as gratuitous.

The spare set looks great from the balcony, and the space was filled skillfully, whether with people or props. The chorus didn't arbitrarily clump but got on and off stage what seemed to be a natural manner. The graceful spirals looked especially nice from above. The scene changes were particularly good, especially the heart-stopping one between Acts III and IV.

Irene Roberts (Carmen) has an interesting voice, her breaths are very noticeable and there is a strident quality to it. Yet she also has a resonance and heft that is a contrast to her tiny, doll-like frame. She looked so vulnerable next to the hulking Brian Jadge as Don José.

Jadge is very bright and strong. It's a good thing too, since he is scheduled for ten of the eleven performances right now, instead of the six he was supposed to sing when the 2015-16 season was announced. He was to share the role with Riccardo Massi, who withdrew and was replaced by Maxim Aksenov last November, who in turn also withdrew, leaving Jadge to replace him except for tonight, when Adam Diegel sings the role.

Ellie Dehn, also a replacement for previously announced Nadine Sierra as Micaëla, was likewise powerful. It isn't a role I like, but Dehn was appealing and never shrill. Zachary Nelson was perfectly fine as Escamillo, those low notes are just so hard, and he could always be heard.

The many current and former Adlers in the cast acquitted themselves well, they move nicely and it is important in a show that has so much raw physicality. They also all have such robust voices. Edward Nelson was especially good as Moralès, as were Renée Rapier (Mercédès) and Amina Edris (Frasquita). It was impressive to me that I knew who they were from the back of the house, and that their acting could read so clearly from so far away.

The weak link in the performance was the orchestra, which played at breakneck speed under Carlo Montanaro. There are many beautiful parts in the score for the woodwinds and the strings, but the musicians were going so fast it was hard to pick out even one particularly lovely solo. The rapid pace made for poor synchronization.

* Tattling * 
There was a fair amount of talking in the balcony, but since it wasn't totally packed, I was able to shift myself away from  in standing room.

A phone rang on the right side of the balcony during a quiet moment in the final act.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen at SF Opera

Sfopera-carmen-acti-anita-rachvelishvili* Notes *
Anita Rachvelishvili (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) is singing five performances as the leading lady in Carmen at San Francisco Opera this month. Rachvelishvili has an arresting voice, resonant and earthy. Her pronunciation of French may have been imperfect, but she seemed fully committed to her role. Rachvelishvili never looked like she was doing something simply because the director asked her to. Though not a graceful dancer, she moved with confidence.

The orchestra, conducted by Nicola Luisotti, was a bit more restrained on last Tuesday's performance than the opening matinée. The chorus sounded fine and together. Paulo Szot was still difficult to hear as Escamillo in Act II, perhaps because of his location upstage. Szot did sound rather pretty later in Act III. Susannah Biller's bell-like tone as Frasquita was pleasing. Thiago Arancam's Don José was a bit wooden, but his voice is not without appeal.

* Tattling * 
The audience was relatively quiet, no one around me talked, and I heard no watch alarms from my favorite standing room spot at the back of the balcony.

SF Opera's Carmen Media Round-Up

Sfopera-carmen-actiiProduction Web Site | SF Opera's Blog

Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Carmen (Act II pictured left with Kendall Gladen as Carmen and members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus, and supernumeraries; photograph by Cory Weaver) are trickling in.

Performance Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle (Kendall Gladen) | San Francisco Chronicle (Anita Rachvelishvili) | San Francisco Classical Voice | San Francisco Examiner

Kendall Gladen as Carmen at SF Opera

Carmen-acti-sf-opera-kendall-gladen* Notes *
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's beloved production of Carmen (Thiago Arancam as Don José and Kendall Gladen as Carmen in Act I pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) was revived at San Francisco Opera yesterday afternoon. Nicola Luisotti used his lush, hazy style to good effect on the orchestra. The volume was occasionally overwhelming, mostly in Acts II and III. The string soli were strong. The bassoon and harp also made fine contributions.

The children's chorus was quite adorable, but seemed to rush a little at first. The San Francisco Opera chorus was robust as usual. The principal singers all very much looked their roles. Wayne Tigges was a convincing enough Zuniga. Cybele Gouverneur did not dance confidently as Mercédès, but sang adequately. Frasquita did not seem like Susannah Biller's best role either, but she does have a lovely sweetness, and moved nicely.

Paulo Szot may have looked dashing as Escamillo, but he was all but inaudible in Act II, even from the back of the balcony, where the sound is best in the War Memorial. In contrast, Sara Gartland's Micaëla could always be heard. Gartland never sounded vulnerable or näive, perhaps because her voice is so hearty and piercing. Her facial expressions read clearly in her close-ups for OperaVision, and she seems prepared for high-definition film. Thiago Arancam also cut a fine figure as Don José, and his volume was impressive, especially in Act I. Overall, he was a bit bland, but the pain in his voice in the last scene came through. Kendall Gladen made for a languid, dangerous Carmen. Her dancing lacked fire, but her voice is attractive. There were some snags here and there in her singing, but for the most part she acquitted herself well. Her low notes are beautiful.

* Tattling * 
There were the requisite watch alarms and light talking from the audience. A woman left her child during the 5 minute pause between Acts III and IV, but did not make it back in time to take her seat. She whispered over me as the orchestra played the beginning of "À deux cuartos!" to inform the child of her location.

Casting Changes for SF Opera's Carmen

B--Kate-AldrichKendall Gladen and Anita Rachvelishvili will share the title role of Carmen with Kate Aldrich (pictured left), whose arrival is delayed by illness. Gladen sings November 6 and 9, Rachvelishvili sings from November 12 through 23, and Aldrich sings from November 26 through December 4.

The role of Mercédès, originally scheduled to be sung by Adler Fellow Maya Lahyani, will now be performed by mezzo-soprano Cybele Gouveneur.

Press Release | SF Opera's Official Site

Carmen at the Met

Carmen-metMetropolitan Opera's new production of Carmen was revived this season. Here is the Unbiased Opinionator's account of the performance that occurred on November 16th.

* Notes * 
The Metropolitan Opera's reprise of its 2009 production of Carmen, directed by Richard Eyre, updates the story from Prosper Mérimée's 1830s setting to the time of the Spanish Civil War. This concept is not new: Frank Corsaro imposed it on the low-budget New York City Opera production back in 1984, which was reprised several times. I saw the NYCO production in the late 90s, and an unfortunate parallel must be drawn: one has the impression that the updating is done only to save money by substituting drab costumes and sets for what should be a rich visual spectacle. Audiences "listen with their eyes" as well as their ears, as the saying goes, and in this case the visuals cast a pall on the entire opera, with some exceptions, to be noted below.

One exception to the dreariness of the color palette of this production was the striking blood-red slash streaking downward through the fire curtain as one entered the auditorium, which found an admirable symmetry in the gown in which Carmen meets her fate at the end of the opera: a black lace dress (trajes de faraleas) with an identical red streak down the front, something akin to a lightening bolt.

To this listener, the performance was murdered in its cradle by the impossibly fast tempi chosen by conductor, Edward Gardner, in his Met debut. The opening overture was driven to such an extreme that the only the marvelous Met orchestra could have kept up. The result was a depressing lack of rhythmic drive, absence of phrasing, loss of clarity of instrumentation and ragged ensemble. This was particularly obvious in the third act, and the failure of coordination verged on outright disaster. Perhaps Gardner was told by management to keep his eye on the clock, as overtime starts at midnight. Seated relatively closely to the stage, I could not discern a prompter's box, and absent a prompter, and even with TV monitors, the cast displayed almost telepathic capacity with which to maintain minimal coordination with the pit. I believe this to be one of the curses of our time, the confusion of speed with energy.

The admirable Met chorus seemed underpowered in this performance, except for lyric passages which were sung with great beauty and balance. The children's chorus was brilliantly energized and forceful. I often marvel at the capacity of a child's voice to carry in a house the size of the Met, an object lesson to adult singers and to voice teachers alike.

We had, once again, the ever present Met turntable set design; rotating vertical cuffs which serve in their various permutations as cigarette factory, tavern, gypsy hideout and bullring. Peter Mumford"s lighting design washed the stage in a dim haze throughout the evening. Piercing, brilliant Spanish sunlight was nowhere to be seen, even in the final act, except at the moment where Jose murders Carmen, when the sky momentarily turns blood red.

The Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča possesses a voice of great beauty, graced with a secure technique and a powerful top. She is also blessed with an extremely attractive physical presence and the ability to move well on stage. However, one wished for more risk-taking, more earthiness. Her delivery undercut Carmen's predatory sexuality by substituting finely formed vocalism for dramatic power. It seemed that she either lacked, or was unwilling to dig into, the chest register where the music and drama require it. This is a great challenge for a good singer: how to go beyond certain technical boundaries without risking vocal health. I would love to hear this singer in other repertory, Mozart, Strauss or Mahler, where her cool Baltic temperament and vocal gift might be heard to better effect.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich's Don José was vocally gratifying and visually handsome. He possesses a voice with the sufficient "blade" (as Colin Davis used to call it) with which to fill the large Met auditorium, and he finished his Flower Song with a beautiful voix-mixte B-flat. He overcame an initial impression of physical stiffness and unease and built his delivery to fine dramatic effect in the last act. On the minus side, he was not served well at the opera's conclusion by the costume designer, who draped him in what looked like a monk's robe with a huge cross dangling across his chest – a too literal take on his line to Carmen: "laisse moi te sauver." A fine bit of staging, having José slam Carmen into a wall, dazing her as he pleads with her not to desert him, was spoiled by an unsupported piece of the set which tottered comically upon impact.

Of the remaining cast, John Relyea's Escamillo was to this listener a disappointment in every respect except one, his dashing physical presence. I have greatly admired this singer in other roles, particularly, Faust in Berlioz's Damnation of Faust. Here, however, his ample bass-baritone was hampered by a swallowed delivery and weak top. Nicole Cabell as Micaëla, while sweet of voice, seemed underpowered in the Met's cavernous auditorium although she played the role with sincerity. At the risk of belaboring the point, one has to again fault the conductor, who put Cabell into a rhythmic vice in her signature aria "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante." His dictatorial, metronomic beat robbed this singer of any chance to employ expressive rubato or flow. She wisely delivered her high B front and center, figuratively wresting the baton from Edward Gardner's hands and giving herself a chance to make a true impact. Michael Todd Simpson as Moralès and Keith Miller as Zuniga were effective. Joyce El-Khoury (in her Met debut) as Frasquita, Eve Gigliotti as Mercédès and their gypsy cohorts didn' t stand a chance vocally, given Gardner' s whirlwind tempi, although they executed their choreographic and dramatic duties with expertise.

A special mention should be made of the beautiful and expressive dancing of Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey, and of the beautiful rendition of the Act III Entr'acte by members of the Met orchestra.

* Tattling * 
The Met audience was better-behaved than usual, although one man behind me insisted on humming alone with the "Toreador Song" in the overture. Two women of a certain age insisted on exchanging remarks despite nasty looks from UO and from Miss LCU. There was the usual, inevitable standing ovation by the audience members who chose not to bolt for the doors the minute the show ended. How one longs for European audiences, who rarely give standing ovations, except for performances of extraordinary "once-in-a-lifetime" impact.

Carmen at LA Opera

Carmen-la-real   * Notes *
Los Angeles Opera is midway through a revival of Carmen from Teatro Real. Emilio Sagi's production is a bit avant garde, the set is traditional looking enough, and the costumes have a traditional feel with a few rough edges. The ending has been fiddled with, such that Carmen somehow takes a more active role in her own demise. This was interesting, but one is not altogether sure it works.

The dancers were required to make percussive sounds with their hands and feet, sometimes this was good, and other times they were entirely off. Likewise, the conducting was erratic, Emmanuel Villaume did not have command of the orchestra, they were often not together or with the singers.

Raymond Aceto did not look dashing as Escamillo until the last act, though vocally he was fine. Genia Kühmeier (Micaëla) was wonderful, she did start off a bit breathy, but her voice is sweet and clear. The strongest performance was from Marcus Haddock as Don José, his volume was good, and he sang with fire. His "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" went particularly well. Viktoria Vizin looked beautiful in the title role, her throaty, dark tones were not unpleasant, but she just did not seem fully engaged. Her hip movements were quite good, but her castanet playing left something to be desired.

* Tattling * 
The audience was talkative, as the Sunday matinée audience often is. They applauded for the set more than once.