How do you like your Carmen? Mezzo or soprano? Flirtatious? Confrontational? Smolderingly sexy? The role – and Bizet’s opera – contain multitudes. I came to know and love Carmen first via records (Thomas Beecham with Victoria de los Ángeles, and Georg Solti with Tatiana Troyanos were early favorites), and a real revelation was hearing excerpts from 78s by the great Ninon Vallin. Her bright, silvery timbre, perfect French, and crisply elegant delivery opened the door to a whole other tradition.
The very French opéra comique Carmen, with its reams of spoken dialogue, has mostly vanished in performance, replaced by a large-format Carmen with sung recits and a more international flavor. But not to worry – the opera works well in any number of configurations. It’s just that good.
It would be reductive to call Opera Philadelphia’s terrific new production, exceptionally vivid and marvelously sung and acted, “middle of the road,” though in a sense, that’s what it is. There are a few lines of spoken dialogue – just enough to remind us of Carmen’s roots – but the recits are used. The opera, under Paul Curran’s theatrically savvy direction, is updated here to the 1950s in an unidentified Latin country.
Gary McCann’s picturesque sets (brightly colored but peeling billboards are a recurring visual motif) and Paul Hackenmueller’s moody lighting evoke a number of piquant images: a languid summer day and night in Cuba, perhaps, or a shadowy film noir. (The latter was especially true in Act III, where the smuggling operation – set in a sharply-angled warehouse – was as effectively staged as I’ve ever seen it).
Yet there’s real French-ness to it, too, mostly where it counts most—in the music. Conductor Yves Abel, making his debut with Opera Philadelphia, swung almost instantly into the Prélude, setting a crisp, high-energy reading that rarely flagged, but also had the necessary lyricism. The singers did very well with the language, really relishing the words.
This is especially true of Evan Leroy Johnson (Don José), whose forwardly-placed tenor with its easy access to a meltingly lovely head voice most closely approximate the classic French style – even better, Johnson has the refined taste to go with it, capping “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” with a heart-stopping soft finale. And he’s a committed, thoughtful actor.
Adrian Timpau’s Escamillo also delivers in the style department. His caramel-tinted baritone is tested a bit at the range extremes, but it’s a beautifully warm, sappy sound in the mid-range, and he inflects the rhythms and grace notes with skill. (Throughout, the cast did exceptionally well with the many small, decorative flourishes in the score – even including Don José’s trills – bravo, Mr. Johnson!)
Kirsten MacKinnon’s enunciation was less pointed, but her lovely, expansive lyric soprano is a fine fit for Micaela, and she acted the role with sympathy as well as a note of slyness. (Too often, Micaëla seems guileless – really, she’s really a grade-A manipulator.) There was fine supporting work by Ashley Milanese (Frasquita), Anastasiia Sidorva (Mercedes), Dogukan Kuran (Dancaïre), and Daniel Taylor (Remendado) – the Smuggler’s Quintet in Act II sparkled with wit and musical point. Johnathan McCullough was a lively, rich-voiced Morales.
Daniela Mack, who had so impressed at the start of the season in Opera Philadelphia’s premiere of Elizabeth Cree, was exceptional here as Carmen, too. The role lies ideally in the sweet spot of her chocolatey, vibrant mezzo, and she made effective use of the descent into chest voice – while never over-playing it. In fact, Mack’s subtlety was the key to her remarkable performance.
She consistently eschewed clichés (no hands-on-hips, no braying laughter), instead realizing the character through detailed interactions, and (acting teachers would cheer) truly listening. No doubt Curran’s direction helped here, as the long musical interludes that are a signature of Carmen were consistently filled with richly inflected but silent interplay. To watch Mack, her eyes darting with pent-up desperation in the introduction to the Chanson Bohème, was as dramatically satisfying as her beautiful singing.
Alas, more generally, the Act II staging brought a few contemporary clichés, notably acrobatic dancers who distracted from the central action, and a staging of the Chanson Bohème that made the three women look like the McGuire Sisters, as if it were Open Mike Night at Lilas Pastia’s Tavern.
Those brief miscalculations aside, Curran’s direction was notable for its fluidity and consistent emphasis on character. I assume he and choreographer/assistant director Seth Hoff worked together to devise the last scene, which was as electrifying as I’ve ever seen it in the theater – the movement minimal but powerful, the sense of connection profound.
Mack and Johnson here achieved a rare sense of almost cinematic acting in opera… and more generally, the production found a near-ideal balance between the French sense of sophisticated sparseness, and bolder, more colorful, international house Carmen.
It’s a stirring finale to a fine season at Opera Philadelphia, which shows the company, under General Director David Devan’s firm leadership, moving swiftly and steadily into the major leagues.