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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Opera Review: The Carmen That Almost Wasn't

Bizet opera saved at 11th hour in Philadelphia.
Armed and dangerous: Rinat Shaham in the title role of Carmen.
Image © 2011 Vancouver Opera/Opera Company of Philadelphia.
Sunday afternoon's performance of Carmen by the Opera Company of Philadelphia almost didn't happen. Labor negotiations between stage-hands and the Kimmel Center (which also owns the venerable Academy of Music where the show was scheduled to take place) have not been going well, and the union was on strike as of last night.

But at the eleventh hour, the union granted a "cool-down" period of one week, allowing the Sunday matinee Carmen to proceed as planned.

And it was a good thing too. This is a simple, engaging production of the Bizet favorite, offering a sun-baked unit set and some clever directorial touches as backdrop to the deadly love story of the title heroine and her obsessed lover Don José. The performance was crisply conducted by Corrado Rovaris, with respect for the famous score.

Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham was an engaging, sexy Gypsy, rolling out sensual low notes in the Habañera and driving poor José (tenor David Pomeroy) into a sexual frenzy with the Seguedilla. But she seemed drained after the Card Song, and the Act IV confrontation did not come off. Perhaps she is better at portraying sex than anger.

Another positive: Ms. Shaham who knew the opera's history. In Act II, she clanked halves of a broken dish together (as called for in the libretto) instead of prestidigitating a pair of castanets. Her card-reading became a motif of the evening, although it was odd to watch her quickly check her fate (again) in the dusty street outside the Seville bullring.

David Pomeroy was an impressive Don José, unleashing his big voice in the later part of the Seguedilla and then singing the Flower Song with restraint and pitch control. This made this famous aria (really a monologue) chilling in its portrait of instability. José started to melt down in Act III, and Mr. Pomeroy added squillo to show the ex-soldier's rage. He dominated the final scene, and you could see him debating whether or not to kill her.

Ailyn Pérez was a beautiful, impressive Micaëla. With her pleasing, agile soprano, she made the "good girl" a viable alternative to the fiery Carmen. Her dialogue bits in Act I were restored, although the Act III scene with the guide was cut. She sang a lovely Act I Letter Duet with Mr. Pomeroy, and was steadfast in facing down the smugglers.

Jonathan Beyer's smallish baritone made him an underwhelming Escamillo: he played the toreador as an obnoxious popinjay. The fine bass Jeremy Milner (Zuñiga) was better suited, bringing a rich bass and some good comic acting to the role of Don José's unlucky superior officer. Greta Ball and Tammy Coil were an active Frasquita and Mercédés, but don't ask me which was which.

Little directorial touches added spice to this Carmen. Director David Gately added some good ideas: Zuñiga pointing a rifle to silence the Act I children's chorus; the parade of smuggled goods that went on behind the Act II gypsy dance. Also welcome: the decision to use the original spoken dialogue. This provides greater contrast to Bizet's music, and makes better dramatic sense in key scenes.

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