The overly large auditorium of the San Diego Civic Theater was packed full last night for the San Diego Opera’s opening performance of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. The house was sold out as opera lovers young and old turned up for one of the most reliable cash cows of the operatic repertoire. Whether you enjoy opera or not you are already familiar with and most likely even love many of the show’s hit tunes that often turn up in films and commercials. I dare say that no one has sold more cars, perfumes, chocolates and other wallet-emptying stuff than Bizet’s favorite gypsy and her Habanera (and other dancy arias), and one simply can’t browse through any figure skating show or competition without hearing one or more of the opera’s ear-catching intermezzos and preludes. Some composers struggle for entire long operas for a single ear-sticking melody, Bizet blitzes you with whole truck loads of them in just under 3 hrs.
The opera’s story, of course, centers around Carmen, the free-loving Spanish serial-dating gypsy and her ill-fated love-hate romance with the hot-headed and fragile-charactered soldier Don Jose. Their affair goes from sicky to fatal with the added attraction of Carmen’s next lover, Escamillo the dashing bull-fighting stud, much to the horror of Carmen’s smuggling friends and sisters in crime… and Jose’s helplessly too-good-to-be-true fiancee, Micaela (touchingly sung by Talise Trevigne).
In this run of the opera, the stage director Sonja Frisell opted for the traditional setting with very realistic if quite drab period sets and costumes that rendered the opening performance a bit static. Many of the famous dance scenes (like the Act II opening Chanson Boheme) involved so little dancing that it took much of the beat out of the performance. I also had trouble understanding why Jose reacted so indifferently to Micaela’s appearance considering how he was going on telling his friends how he loved her just before. As it went, he just looked at her in the manner of ‘oh, so there your are. What the hell do you want?‘ sort of affection. Normally I’d put acting like that on the stage director (especially on the first performance of a run), but Richard Leech, the show’s Jose, spent so much of the night overpowering everybody else that I wondered…
I appreciate that he filled in as Jose on this cast on just a few weeks’ notice after Salvatore Licitra had to drop out due to illness, but all the same… There is no disputing that his was the loudest voice in the cast, tremor-y and tonally uncertain as it was (And loud tenor voices can be quite exciting to listen to if only it isn’t so loud all the time). It rubbed me the wrong way, nonetheless, that for the entire show Mr. Leech sang softer than mezzo forte on only two phrases, and they both came in the final scenes (Which meant that he could have sung softer more often but had chosen not to)! That took a lot of joy out of the gorgeous Jose-Micaela duet and the little duet with Carmen after the Flower Aria (which he navigated with the subtlety of a bee-stung bear in a China shop — this could be his intentional portrayal of a very emotionally unsophisticated Jose, however. A valid interpretation if not one for my liking). More dynamic variation and more legato would be quite more pleasant from so penetrating a voice, I think.
As the show’s showcase gypsy was Nino Surguladze, the young Georgian mezzo-soprano with a drop dead gorgeous (if rather monochromatic) voice. One can spend days dreaming of her luscious silky intonation that reminds of a slimmer version (vocal-wise) of Stephanie Blythe’s. An ideal Carmen she would be if only the voice could move faster. Aside from some weird phrasing, coloratura was a problem for her, and her lack of vocal speed dictated the surprisingly draggy tempo of the Seguedilla and the Gypsy Song… She is an involved actress, however, and managed to exude enough persona on the stage to be locatable among the similarly dressed minor characters. Despite of all that, though, she ruled the big stage as Carmen. Definitely a young singer to keep an ear on in the coming years.
Wayne Tigges was a dashing Escamillo with his bona fide barihunk physique and beautiful if a bit slender bass-baritone. The rest of the cast performed well, and the San Diego Opera Chorus and the San Diego Symphony Orchestra were their usual near flawless selves. It was the first time Edoardo Mueller conducted a French work here at the San Diego Opera (that is usually the domain of the company’s principal conductor Karen Keltner), and he acquitted himself with style and flair. The 3 1/2 hrs went by in a flash (with a caveat that having sat through 6 hrs of the Met HD broadcast of Die Walkuere earlier in the day like I did would make just about anything seem shorter).
Over all, it was a good opening performance that boded well for the rest of the run. If you are in San Diego area this week and are interested in seeing Carmen at the San Diego Opera (upcoming shows on May 17, 20, 22), you have better hustle up. There aren’t many tickets left and next weekend’s matinee is already sold out.