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14.11.08

'Carmen' Redux, with B Cast

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.


Laura Brioli, mezzo-soprano
It is an important tradition for an opera company to have a few performances of a production with a second cast featuring emerging singers. Washington National Opera gave the nod to some younger talent in the second cast of its current staging of Bizet's Carmen (piano-vocal score -- libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on the novella by Prosper Mérimée). On Wednesday night, those singers did fairly well jumping into this largely undistinguished production, reviewed earlier this week with the first cast, including and centered on local favorite Denyce Graves. The big surprise was that Julius Rudel, the scheduled conductor, was not on the podium, and the cover conductor, Steven Gathman, who is also the WNO Chorus Master, took his place. Without the star presence of Graves taking over the stage, Gathman was able to lead a more consistent reading of the score, imposing tempi that were generally more in line with expectations, although some on the stage who had sung under Rudel seemed to be functioning at times on their memory of the other conductor's decisions.

None of the singers truly made a career-altering impression, but all were generally good and held up just fine by comparison to the other cast. The Italian mezzo-soprano Laura Brioli, dark-haired and slender, certainly filled the role in a physically pleasing way. The voice had a room-filling if slightly tarry presence, throaty and with a thick, coloring vibrato. For Carmen, it was not ugly, but not exactly beautiful or seductive (for example, Grace Bumbry could seduce with her voice alone, even if she were not also so pretty). The costuming and direction did not help Brioli much in the seduction department either: she seemed so concerned with getting the castanet rhythms right and singing all her notes that she did little else with her Act II dance song, "Je vais danser." (Take a gander at Julia Migenes-Johnson, although she sounded pretty awful.)

The tenor of Brandon Jovanovich has impressed me before, especially the light side of his upper range, mixed with head voice, which was put to good use in "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée." Much of his other singing, especially in the first-act ensembles, was plagued by sour intonation, mostly from a tendency to color sharp. Mexican baritone Jorge Lagunes was not as strong as his last appearance here would have made one expect, in the extraordinary Andrea Chénier back in 2004. He was neither as refined vocally -- tending toward a swallowed, dark tone -- nor as suave physically as Alexander Vinogradov in the first cast. As on opening night, Sabina Cvilak, continued to impress as a golden, virginal Micaëla, who really has the best music in the opera, for my taste. If anything she was better on Wednesday night, having settled into the role and the house's acoustic, and her high notes sounded more secure and less effortful.

The run of Carmen continues through November 19, with this cast on November 14 and 18, and Denyce Graves and the first cast on November 16 and 19.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

When I saw Carmen yesterday with Denyce Graves the conductor was also Steven Gathman. And in fact it happened to me quite a few times that Mr. Gathman substituted the announced conductor - in the previous cases Heinz Fricke. And that this substitution was made witout any explanation; in no cases I was told that Mr. Fricke and Mr. Rudel were undisposed. This is a practice that needs to stop.

Charles T. Downey said...

This is why companies have a cover conductor, to make sure the show goes on. Be thankful that Gathman was on the podium -- the alternative would be that you would not be hearing an opera.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but they need to tell us a reason why the announced conductor is indisposed. It is true that Mr. Gathman did a good job but we still need an explanation for the change.