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Strong vocalists overcome some hurdles in LA Opera’s season opening Carmen

Carmen Orch.Tech_2 _September 16, 2013 -The mood at Los Angeles Opera leading up to the beginning of this new season has been thoroughly buoyant, the result of a confluence of good news:

  • After successfully dealing with a pulmonary embolism that kept him off stages and podiums all over the world,  Plácido Domingo — the company’s General Director, überbaritenor, and part-time conductor —  triumphantly returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to conduct his first-ever opening night.
  • Music Director James Conlon was on hand too, though in the rare capacity as an audience member.  Earlier this year, he signed a new contract which will extend his tenure in LA through at least the 2017/2018 season.  This past summer, he weathered his own health complications before recovering enough to go ahead with a planned run of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Metropolitan Opera, though he  managed to find time in between rehearsals to fly back to LA for this evening.
  • Even though they are financing the latest honey-combed cultural addition to the Grand Avenue Corridor, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation still managed to find $7 Million to donate to the company to keep their name on Maestro Domingo’s job title (and, let’s pray, more than just that).
  • Just a few weeks ago came the announcement that the company was adding three semi-staged performances of André  Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, with Renée Fleming and Anthony Dean Griffey reprising the roles they created in the original San Francisco Opera production.  This brings the number of productions this season to eight, up from last year’s six.  More importantly, two of these productions (Streetcar and Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass) are by composers who are — gasp! — still alive.

Taken together, all of these things re-affirmed what the LAO leadership has been saying for a while — that the company’s troubles are behind them and that from here on out, things are going to be better.  And so, for their opening production of this increasingly auspicious season, the company trotted out . . . (drumroll please) . . . Carmen.  

This may not get hardcore opera purists excited, but when you’re rolling out an uncommon work such as Streetcar or Einstein or Massenet’s Thaïs, you’ve got to make sure to mix a few crowd-pleasers into the season to ensure some packed houses.  Carmen reliably makes the accountants happy, regardless of whether you think that it’s over-played or not played enough.

Sure enough, this particular run has been selling well, and the house on opening night last Saturday was packed. Those in attendance were treated to a cast of singers in excellent voice, placed in a  production that was frustratingly uneven visually and overly-simplistic dramatically.  The ultimate result was an opera that was easy to enjoy, but tough for me to love.

CrmN1119

At first blush, there is much that would satisfy most anyone.  Big, dramatic sets?  Yup, this is one of the biggest and deepest to occupy the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage.  Spectacle?  Sure, care of a large cast of LA Opera chorus members, a charming troupe from the LA Children’s Chorus, and dancers doing flamenco-ish steps.  A strong musical backbone?  Definitely, with Maestro Domingo leading the proceedings with perfect pacing and balance,  drawing out some lovely playing from the LA Opera orchestra in the process.

Beyond that, whether or not this production is one you’d love depends on what you’re looking for in a warhorse such as Carmen.  Let’s start with the cast, full of first-rate voices but hampered somewhat by one-dimensional portrayals.

Carmen Piano_Dress _September 12, 2013 -Patricia Bardon played the title role on opening night as she will for all but one of the performances.  The Irish mezzo-soprano has an attractive, dusky, quality to her voice that she uses with the right amount of sultriness and flair.  It isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to stand out among the other singers with ample reserve that she can call on when needed.  She played the part with swagger and confidence, owning the stage as much by her attitude and posture as by her singing.  From her entrance in the famous Habanera through to her tragic demise at the end of the opera, Bardon’s Carmen is shamelessly fickle and callous, tossing around the word “amour” like it’s a dirty dish rag rather than anything to be taken seriously.

It works, but if you prefer your Carmen to also display some sensuality, let alone any overt sexuality or eroticism, you’d be very disappointed.  In this portrayal, she is more of a tease than a temptress; whether that’s her choice or the director’s, I can’t be sure.   Her “seduction” of  Don José is downright puritanical.  The one or two times hints of bare leg flash from beneath her skirt, you’d think it was an accident.  She barely bats her eyelashes at him, yet he becomes and remains enraptured by her, as if in a perpetual state of willful disbelief.  (Dude, she’s just not that into you!)

Speaking of Don José, Brandon Jovanovich is convincing as Carmen’s hapless boy-toy.  You may not understand how or why he falls for her, but when he does, it’s easy to believe that he is slowly going down the emotional drain.  He is an undeniable presence, with an imposing stature, impressive subtlety in his acting, and an even more impressive voice.  José’s increasing melancholy, frustration and rage comes through in his voice without the vocal lines ever becoming misshapen.  During the famous Flower Song (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”), he floated the tender lines with grace, but he was easily at his best during the moments filled with anguish, like this gem:

“Then I accused myself of blasphemy, and felt within myself but one single desire, one single hope: to see you again, Carmen, yes, to see you again!
(Puis, je m’accusais de blasphème, Et je ne sentais en moi-même qu’un seul désir, un seul espoir: Te revoir, Carmen, oui, te revoir!)”

Brandon Jovanovich (Don Jose) with ensemble as Act 3 opens

Was it an ideal portrayal?  No.  The perfect Don José would have a great voice AND make you believe he lost his brains for Carmen for some reason other than her saucy reputation, though I think he was a bit hamstrung by Carmen’s relative tameness.  And as impressive as his singing may be, the final “je t’aime” of the Flower Song doesn’t bring you to tears the way Domingo in his hey-dey might have.  Granted, that’s a tough standard to match, but not an unreasonable one when the guy waving the baton in the pit is the standard by which all Don Josés get measured.  That said, I think Mr. Jovanovich is still the best tenor in the core repertoire plying his trade today, and if there’s a better one, someone please tell me who it is.

Orchestra Tech 1 _September 16, 2013 -Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, has become a frequent visitor to Los Angeles lately (thank goodness for that), and he returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage as the bullfighter, Escamillo.  He looks and sounds straight out of Hollywood central casting, especially for a role such as this.  He wasn’t asked to do much with the role, but what little he did, worked:  when he looks at a woman and causes her to swoon, you aren’t surprised; when he whips out a knife after being challenged, he does it with a sly “bring it on” demeanor.  His voice is always dark and resonant, and while it doesn’t over-power, neither does it ever get swallowed up.

Playing the saintly Micaëla is Pretty Yende in her company debut.  The South African soprano is a 2011 first-prize winner of Maestro Domingo’s “Operalia” competition, and she acquitted herself well.  Her Micaëla is all innocence and naiveté, both in how she sang and carried herself.  Her voice soared with elegance and brightness, and her big Act 3 aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante,” elicited the biggest ovation of the evening.  Yes, her wardrobe looked completely out of place in that entire act’s mountain setting (what looked to be 2-3 inch heels and 20 lbs and multiple layers of overcoat), but blame costume designer Jesus del Pozo for that.

Orchestra Tech 1 _September 16, 2013 -Among the singers in minor roles, soprano Hae Ji Chang (a member of the company’s Young Artist Program)  in her LA Opera debut stood out above her colleagues with a lovely soubrette voice as Frasquita; keep a look out for her in future roles.  In Act 2, she teamed up with Ms. Bardon, Cassandra Zoé Velasco (Mercedes), Keith Jameson (El Remendado), and Museop Kim (El Dancairo), for a scheming quintet that made for the most genuinely charming and amusing moment in the entire opera.

If there is blame to be assigned for what to me was less-than-satisfying stagecraft, it lands squarely on the shoulders of stage director Trevore Ross.  A member of LA Opera’s assistant directing staff, these performances of Carmen mark his company debut in the top job.

Some people feel that a director’s approach to a classic like this is to stay out of its way and do no harm.  Perhaps, then, Mr. Ross was playing it safe.  It’s a shame because the scenes that worked best were the ones that were unabashedly full of dramatic tension (the Act 4 final confrontation between Carmen and Don José) or unafraid to be funny (the aforementioned Act 2 quintet); however, his approach more often seemed to be one of avoiding risks, with scenes often falling into that netherworld between serious and silly.  The worst of these were ensemble numbers in Act 1 (the argument between the cigarette girls, and the final scene when Carmen escapes) which looked awkward, almost cartoonish.

The massive sets, originally from the Teatro Real, Madrid, while mostly attractive and functional, suffered from a different kind of problem:  their sheer size and depth draws you in, as if inviting you to revel in the nuances; however, your eyes are soon drawn to the parts that, for no apparent reason, are completely plain.  The most egregious examples were towers that were used in Lillas Pastia’s inn (Act 2) and the smuggler’s mountain resting spot (Act 3):  there is a small section near the top cut out to show what looked to be a stacks of rocks, but mostly they are flat, straight-sided and painted a dull grey.  At best, they looked out-of-place; at worst, they looked like the artisans ran out of time constructing the set; either way, it wasn’t good.

The net result is an experience that is pleasant at the surface, but rarely approaches anything close to theatrical depth.  If you’ve never seen Carmen before, if the most important thing to you in an opera are the musical qualities, or if you were just looking to be entertained, this isn’t a problem whatsoever.  If instead you’re an opera veteran or someone who demands genuine artistry in places beyond the singing, you’re not likely to find what you’re looking for here.

As for me . . . there were excellent voices singing timeless, hum-along classics.  I was hoping for more, but I’ll take what I got.

IMG_20130921_232810_101-1Random other thoughts:

  • Most of the dialogue was cut.  What little remained was spoken (en en français) as opposed to using the sung recitatives which often get utilized instead.
  • There is always great people-watching in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during a Los Angeles Opera performance, and it gets even better for an opening night gala.  A typical  audience is a fascinating mix of people dressed up in tuxedos and long gowns, stylish suits and tight mini-dresses, hipsters and artistes in creative formal wear, and the smattering of people who clearly couldn’t care what they looked like.  You’d think opening night would be loaded with more people leaning towards the dressy than the disheveled, but I was surprised at how many people (men and women) who were content to stroll amongst the glitterati in ill-fitting shirts/blouses and rumpled khakis.
  • Among the better known names in attendance were Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic and erstwhile cellist, and actress Kate Walsh.  Ms. Walsh made her way backstage with her mother to meet with Messers. Domingo and Conlon, plus Christopher Koelsch (LA Opera President & CEO) and the cast members.
  • The cast and conductors get shuffled throughout the seven show run.  Ms. Bardon yields the title role for a single performance on September 28th to frequent LA Opera visitor and Orange County resident, Milena Kitić.  Until very recently, Ms. Kitić was married to Milan Panić, pharmaceutical impressario and former Prime Minister of the short lived “Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.”  Interestingly enough, this note is listed in the credits:

“Production made possible by generous gifts from The Milan Panic Family
and
The Alfred and Claude Mann Fund, in honor of Plácido Domingo.”

File that under “Things that make you say, ‘Hmmmmm. . . .’ “

RELATED POSTS:

Los Angeles Opera:  September 21, 2013; Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

IMG_20130921_232957_372-1Carmen

by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée

running September 21 – October 6, 2013

CAST

Carmen: Patricia Bardon
Carmen (Sept. 28): Milena Kitic
Don José: Brandon Jovanovich
Don José: (Oct. 1, 4) Thiago Arancam*
Micaëla: Pretty Yende*
Micaëla (Sept. 28): Amanda Woodbury+*
Escamillo: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Escamillo: (Sept. 28) Dwayne Croft
Zuniga: Valentin Anikin+*
El Remendado: Keith Jameson
El Dancairo: Museop Kim++
Morales: Daniel Armstrong++
Frasquita: Hae Ji Chang+*
Mercedes: Cassandra Zoé Velasco+*

CREATIVE TEAM

Conductor (Sep. 21, 29; Oct. 1, 6): Plácido Domingo
Conductor (Sep. 26, 28; Oct. 4): Grant Gershon
Original Production: Emilio Sagi
Director: Trevore Ross*
Scenery Designer: Gerardo Trotti
Costume Designer: Jesus del Pozo
Lighting Designer: Guido Levi
Choreographer: Nuria Castejón
Associate Choreographer: Briseyda Zárate*

* LA Opera debut artist
+ Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program member
++ Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program alumnus

—————
Photo credits:

  • Brandon Jovanovich and Ensemble; Kate Walsh et al:  photos by CK Dexter Haven
  • All others:  photos by Robert Millard for Los Angeles Opera
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12 thoughts on “Strong vocalists overcome some hurdles in LA Opera’s season opening Carmen

  1. Ildebrando D’arcangelo’s brilliant performance in LA – the best Toreador ever.
    If Toreador is not expressive enough (as it often happens) the ecstasy of the crowd and Carmen’s preference of his love to freedom becomes ambigious. Usually the singers make accent on the Song and later the character loses interest. In reality it is not easy to create the character of the idol of public, as well as to show in the Song the rapture of danger, jf one’s own glory and right for love won by life risk. Ildebrando D”Arcangello is a brilliant Toreador, not only in the Song… but in the scene with Don Jose which is splendidly set in Francesca Zambello’s production (2008). Jose is not humiliated, the characters ate compatible in their appearance, both move splendidly, and both are in the state of animal tension. In the final scene D’Arcangello shows Toreador in his glory – he has everything -glory, adoration, all the city is at his feet, a famous belle near him. surrendering -he is the master of life. This makes more poignant the despair of Jose and makes the finale tragic and pathetic…

    D’Arcangello is the born Toreador (as well as Don Giovanni), and his participation guarantees success to any production of this masterpieces.

    http://www.cultandart.ru/music/60725-opera_karmen__novyj_vzgljad_na_obraz_toreadora

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  2. Admittedly, i have not experienced Brandon Jovanovich in person, but, judging by recorded highlights i have seen and heard, when you proclaimed him “the best tenor in the core repertoire plying his trade today”, you must have forgotten about at least this one man – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBw5BFobkrU – who is still in his prime right now. For me, JK is the best dramatic tenor of this century so far (for lyric tenor roles Juan Diego Florez may be the top choice). Complete Carmen with JK is available too – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmUPvk-0kGA (the same fine Escamillo as in LA Opera, by the way).

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    • Yes, JK is certainly up there, and I totally understand why you (or anyone else) would put him at the very top. I’d be thrilled to someday get the chance to see/hear him perform in person. As good as he is, though, I prefer Jovanovich’s brighter tone.

      I’m completely with you on your statement about JDF in lyric tenor roles. That said, I really enjoyed Alek Shrader in “Albert Herring” a couple seasons ago, and the more I hear from in this repertoire, the more I like his voice. I was very happy to see that he’ll be singing this coming spring in “Cosi fan tutte.” René Barbera, who was Prince Ramiro in LA Opera’s “Cenerentola” last season, was also quite good and definitely worth seeing again.

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  3. I very much agree with your thoughts. I went Thursday night and while the voices were good, (it unfortunately took the vocalists an act to really come into their voices) the characters were very one-note.
    Yende’s costumes were head scratchers, especially that frumpy beige coat in Act One. All in all, it was a good performance, but it didn’t wow me, even with the huge cast and spectacle. Can’t win ’em all I suppose.

    Oh, would have to disagree on one point – Charles Castronovo is my choice for best tenor at the moment. :o)

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  4. The two main reasons why i consider Jonas Kaufman head and shoulders above all other dramatic tenors performing these days are: 1) his voice has more depth, warmth, colors and shadings than that of other tenors, it is remarkably even throughout the range and sounds consistently gorgeous from extreme pianissimo all the way to hall-filling fortissimo; 2) his musicianship is more refined, sophisticated and intelligent than that of any other contemporary tenor. That is an unbeatable combination at the moment. Both Jovanovich and Castronovo are very good, and so are Grigolo, Polenzani and a few others, but they are not in the same league with the great JK. About a decade ago, Villazon was pretty close, but unfortunately he isn’t anymore. Meanwhile, JDF still rules the high-flying lyric coloratura bel-canto repertoire.

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    • I totally agree, respect, and believe what you are saying, especially since my exposure to Kaufman is much less than yours. I need to listen to more of his recordings in good quality (i.e. not just on YouTube). That said, as truly outstanding as he is, the color and tone of his voice is just not my favorite. I don’t dislike it, mind you (far from it), but there’s something about it that makes me not automatically LOVE it despite his obviously massive technical and artistic talents. . . . Tomato, Tomahto . . .

      Totally with you on Villazon. Even in his heydey, not as big a voice as Kaufman or Jovanovich, but rich and velvety in quality — and I heard him live on multiple occasions. Too bad what happened to him. I’d add Ben Heppner as another in the coulda/shoulda been great category . . .

      Still sad I didn’t get a chance to experience JDF singing at the LA Phil gala a few years ago. Thank goodness for the audio & video recordings.

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  5. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is the ideal toreador – he’s got the voice and he’s got the image and all the qualities necessary for this part. We are all happy to have him as our contemporary.

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  6. For me, Johas Kaufmann’s voice is as close to the ideal for a dramatic tenor as i have heard since Placido Domingo in the 1980s when he was still in his prime as a real tenor. It has that unique blend of steely focus and warm darkness that is so rare among his would-be peers. Interpretatively and in terms of phrasing, JK is also far more interesting than any dramatic tenor since PD left tenorial territory for (ever-greener?) baritonal pastures.

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