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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Opera Review: A Fresh Take on Carmen.

Review of a Carmen telecast from Berlin.
Marina Domashenko and Rolando Villazón in Carmen

This innovative, wildly experimental Carmen directed by Martin Kusej was filmed in 2006 in Berlin. It featured Rolando Villazón's first performances as Don José, and a strong, domineering Carmen sung by the Russian mezzo Marina Domashenko. When Carmen begins and ends with the executon of Don José, anything can happen. And it does in this brilliant re-interpretation of Bizet's greatest opera.

Don Jose on death row is nothing new. In fact, he appears there in Prosper Mérimée's novella, where the whole story is told by José as he languishes in prison. Here, all the events are in flashback. This Don José is already around the bend when the curtain rises. Carmen does not destroy him. She is drawn into an abusive relationship and victimized by her decision to seduce José in the first act. The Card Song features a silent mass of choristers in white suits--harbingers of death. Micaëla dies in this version, killed by a smuggler's bullet, as does the bullfighter Escamillo, carried out by the chorus after being gored.

Villazón gives a harrowed, magnetic performance in the tradition of Domingo. His strong, flexible tenor navigates the treacherous Flower Song with intelligence and ease. He is a picture of wild-eyed intensity throughout, trapped between Carmen and Micaela, driven by his own mad urges. Marina Domashenko is a gorgeous, sexy, indomitable Carmen with good command of the French, natural acting ability and nimble feet. Although Domashenko dominates the actress from the Habañera onward, she is especially impressive in the quick-fire second act, with its gypsy dances and the acting out of her complex relationship with Don José. She saves her finest moment for the Card Song, mining the lower depths of the role to good psychological effect. And her sneering, spat "Tiens!" in the final scene becomes a searing last word before her death.

Norah Amsellem is strongly cast as Micaela, a pleasant-sounding soprano who wilts next to Domashenko's sensual Gypsy. Alexander Vinogradov is a pompous, popinjay Escamillo. The death of that character (killed in the bullring) is something that many Carmen lovers have wanted to see for a long time. Christof Fischesser is a memorable, bearish Zuñiga with a fine baritone voice. Daniel Barenboim leads the Deutsche Oper Berlin forces in a crisp reading of the score. The spoken dialogue is used here, preserving Bizet's dramatic structure and the flow of ideas in the music. The choral singing and orchestra are first-rate.

The final confrontation between Carmen and Don José
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.