Holy Smoke: It's Carmen!
PORTopera opened its new production of Bizet's time-honored Carmen in a modest, but effective production, the emphasis appropriately placed where it should be; on music, and drama. I always cringe a a little when a company chooses the Guiraud version instead of Bizet's original, feeling it robs a good deal of the bite and spice the dialogue can add. That being said, most of the music making was strong. Maestro Stephen Lord started things off with a briskly paced overture setting the tone for all that followed. There were a few moments of loss of coordination between stage and pit, most notably the middle of the Smugglers quintet, which found its way back on track and finished with sizzle. Lord is a singers' conductor who strikes the right balance between singers and band, never overpowering, but letting the big orchestral moments pop. In this regard, he's also an audiences' conductor, and that's always a good thing.
Judy Gailen's unit set of a large, curved stucco wall served for all four acts with slight variances (dangerous steps, an enormous table for Carmen to dance and seduce Don Jose on at Lillas Pastia, etc.) for each.
Dona D. Vaughn led a generally excellent cast, starting with the leading lady, Israeli mezzo soprano, Maya Lahyani. With striking good looks, physique and a physical force Lahyani's a natural Carmen, comfortable with her body and unafraid to use it to seduce, or as a weapon. The voice is rich, with an old-fashioned lushness that projected throughout the house beautifully. Wonderful in her early arias and the first two acts' lighter moments, Lahyani truly came into her own in the card scene, reaching into the story's darker side and taking us along Carmen's grizzly ride to Doomsville.
Adam Diegel took a bit of warming up, but earned the first real ovation of the night with the Flower aria, the sweetness of his voice blooming beautifully for the finish. He was at his best in Jose's deadly showdown with his ex where things got good and ugly. He's an agile singer and moved like a dancer, though at other times stiff, which is not, I suppose, against character. One got a small sense of this character's dangerous, but not all (Carmen isn't his first kill). He and Lahyani were appropriately passionate, right up until, well, you know.
Conversely, I was not quite convinced by Edward Parks' turn as Escamillo, With a rich, beautiful mid range, upper notes widened a bit, while the lowest notes (particularly in the Toreador aria) nearly disappeared. His third act appearance reminded me more of Ross Martin's Artemus Gordon from The Wild, Wild West, than a dangerous bullfighter. In the final act he became the victim of an unfortunate costuming decision.
Amanda Woodbury took on, Micaëla, the only decent person in sordid story, and did so marvelously, nowhere more so than in her Act Three aria that, when beautifully sung (as it frequently is, since its Micaëla's only big moment) steals the show. It happened again last night.
Comprimario roles were, to a one, as good as it gets, and the choruses, both children and adult, were magnificent. Once again, When it comes to crowd scenes, Ms. Vaughn once again shows her had as one of the best in the business. Her endless, silhouetted parade of gypsies climbing the mountain pass, then down steep, dangerous steps was stage magic. Vaughn did away with the parade at the bull ring, while the choristers made me believe (vividly) they were seeing it, so much so that I occasionally looked across the balcony expecting to see an army of banderilleros, picadors and matadors. Nice touch.
Getting older, and a touch jaded, I sometimes resist attending operas I've seen countless times, but when I give in, I'm reminded why I fell in love with them in the first place, and so it was this evening. I wasn't alone, the audience, young and old, loved it, and a friend, attending his first opera, can't wait to start going to more. Carmen can do that.
(Photo Credit: John Ewing for mainetoday.com)