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Ionarts in Santa Fe: Carmen

Anne Sofie von Otter with product placement, Carmen, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Anne Sofie von Otter with product placement, Carmen, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
With some operatic roles, it is difficult to enjoy watching an opera in a live performance if the singer does not embody the character's physical qualities. In the new Carmen now at Santa Fe Opera, Anne Sofie von Otter has created one of the most alluring performances of the title role, but mostly for the ears. When she first assayed this role, at Glyndebourne -- a performance that was almost immediately released on DVD -- most were amazed that the normally cool, Nordic von Otter had created one of the most sensual Carmens to date. Little of the sexual frankness -- crassness, perhaps -- admired and occasionally criticized in the Glyndebourne production was evident here, in her debut performance at Santa Fe. This is clearly not a deficit in von Otter's acting, since she has proven herself capable of a sultry Carmen, but is part of the ethos of this unusual production, directed by Lars Rudolfsson. According to an interview (One Carmen is never enough, June 30) that von Otter gave to Craig Smith for the Santa Fe New Mexican, she said, "I feel that I don’t exactly want to do it very saucily." Objective accomplished.

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Georges Bizet, Carmen, Anne Sofie von Otter, Marcus Haddock, Laurent Naouri, Glyndebourne Festival Opera (released on March 18, 2003)

Other Reviews:

Craig Smith, ‘Carmen’ opens season with passion, high drama (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 2)

Roger Snodgrass, Carmen again, anew, always (Los Alamos Monitor, July 2)
There are none of the traditional trappings of the 19th-century Seville in Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy's libretto, and in spite of the involvement of New Mexico choreographer María Benítez, little real flamenco or Spanish gypsy color in the movements. The staging concept was to update the action from that specified in the libretto ("vers 1820") to a century or so later, to the Spain of General Franco, not far from the setting of last year's Ainadamar. Most of the color was drained out of the sets (designed by Neil Patel) and the costumes (designed by Kersti Vitali Rudolfsson), making this one of the more drab productions I can remember. The drabness certainly enhanced the verismo quality of this desperate opera, but I found that Carmen lost most of her appeal and Don José's obsession with her was made that much more puzzling. As part of the early 20th-century atmosphere, there was a lot of cigarette smoking. In the third act, the criminal band of Carmen's friends are smuggling boxes of cigarettes, mostly the brand that Carmen herself is seen smoking in the photograph above. I hope that Philip Morris gave Santa Fe Opera a big check for this prominent product placement.

Still, the music of this opera is so pleasing, so well known, so well crafted that it hardly matters how the story is clothed. Most impressive of all were the extraordinarily well sung and convincingly choreographed choral scenes, with the apprentice singers, under the expert direction of chorus master Gregory Buchalter, in top form. The chorus of children, shameless hams who clearly relished portraying a herd of mischievous street urchins, was no less impressively trained. They were always vocally present and almost always a pleasure to hear, with a few sour high notes in the final crowd scene.

Carmen, Santa Fe Opera, sets by Neil Patel and costumes by Kersti Vitali Rudolfsson, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Carmen, Santa Fe Opera, sets by Neil Patel and costumes by Kersti Vitali Rudolfsson,
photo by Ken Howard © 2006

Jennifer Black as Micaëla, Carmen, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Jennifer Black as Micaëla, Carmen, Santa Fe Opera,
photo by Ken Howard © 2006
Anne Sofie von Otter was stellar, giving every note its own nuance, and with the skilled assistance of music director Alan Gilbert and his well-marshalled orchestra, making each of Carmen's famous pieces sound new with some unusual choices of tempo and color. Von Otter was pretty much the dream Carmen, the voice perfectly calibrated and always rich and velvety in tone. I was less impressed with tenor William Joyner, although he did capture the hapless quality of Don José. What was missing, I felt, was the puissance necessary to the brigadier's jealous rages, particularly in the opera's brutal conclusion. What makes a nice boy from the country murder his ne'er-do-well girlfriend? I don't know, and Joyner's performance did little to enlighten me, lacking as he did some of the raw vocal power that would have pushed the final scene over the emotional edge.

I enjoyed the performances of the two other love interests much more. I admit that I almost always prefer Micaëla to Carmen, because her music is more beautiful and she is simple virtue to loathsome vice. Soprano Jennifer Black -- an apprentice singer just last year -- took the opportunity that came her way because of another singer's withdrawal and ran with it. She was a somewhat frumpy but angelic Micaëla, who received the loudest ovation from an audience that certainly felt it had known her when. It was the first performance of this production with French baritone Laurent Naouri replacing David Pittsinger as Escamillo, reuniting Anne Sofie von Otter with another member of that 2002 Glyndebourne cast. Naouri was an oily and vain Escamillo, with enough vocal strength to justify the character's arrogance. The members of the supporting cast were all up to the task.

Performances of Carmen will continue throughout August, with Laurent Naouri as Escamillo. Beth Clayton will replace Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role on August 23 and 26.


Mark Barry said...

Wow it sounds wonderful. Great post Charles. Now, what did you have to eat?

ACB said...

A quick note before I see you and we have a chance to dish over all of the operas: Jennifer Black was an Apprentice last year; this year she is a full-on Principal Artist. (And, yes, everyone from stage to upper tier is very proud of her.) She was always slated to perform the first few nights of the role, but then Serena Farnocchia decided to take the whole summer off to welcome her new baby, rather than just June & July. Jennifer graciously - and happily, I imagine! - stepped in fo the whole tour.

See you soon!

Charles T. Downey said...

Mark, the eating has been excellent so far, because my parents-in-law are both gourmet chefs. No pictures, though!

Charles T. Downey said...

Anne-Carolyn, thanks for the correction. I have emended the review, hopefully now correct.