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Carmen @ Summer Opera

Teresa Buchholz, mezzo-soprano (photo by Josh South)
Teresa Buchholz, mezzo-soprano (photo by Josh South)
After a mostly beautiful and certainly welcome production of Die tote Stadt, given to unfortunately undersold houses, Summer Opera Theater Company has gone for the bank with a big love letter to its conservative audience. In the first performance in its continuing residency at the Harman Center for the Arts, the company returned to the first opera it presented, thirty seasons ago, Bizet's Carmen. Rather than trying to say something new and unexpected, director David Grindle's staging recycled the most traditional ideas about this old chestnut (his background is in stage management), right down to the sets, designed by Edwardo Sicango, that were borrowed from Virginia Opera (last seen in 2006, with Cristina Nassif in the title role). That the company could not even sell out the Shakespeare Theater's new 775-seat theater with such a proposition gives hope that boring choices are not always rewarded.

Carmen (piano-vocal score) is a beautiful opera, with a charming, effective libretto, by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a novella (.PDF file) by Prosper Mérimée. It is not that the opera is not enjoyable to watch, but that it takes extraordinary singing and an interesting staging (as much of it was in Santa Fe in 2006) to counteract the doldrums. The primary virtue of Summer Opera's production was the singer in the title role, mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz, who cut a seductive figure in the pretty, but very traditional costumes designed by John Lehmeyer. The voice has a chocolatey middle and bottom range, with powerful top notes that are noteworthy more for their power than their beauty. Her Habanera was a little timid and colorless, but by the Séguedille ("Près des remparts de Séville") the wattage of that lower range had kicked in.

As Don José, tenor Benjamin Warschawski had the high notes, but with occasional flatness and a compressed, nasal sound that was especially unsatisfactory when the character unraveled in jealous anger in the fourth act. As the doomed couple, the two singers had no magnetism on stage, mostly just singing near one another. The lovely soprano Lara Colby, a CUA alumna and Summer Opera regular, was a vision of blonde purity as Micaëla, down to her jupe bleue and natte tombante. Her voice, a beautiful instrument, was a little cloudy in its high notes for my taste in this role but overall very good. Thomas Beard's Escamillo was generally well sung, if not all that remarkable vocally, but completely devoid of the necessary macho arrogance. In the supporting roles, mezzo-soprano Michelle Rice was a husky-voiced Mercédès, and soprano Lisa Archibeque's high notes rang out over the ensemble as Frasquita, although she tended to be just ahead of the beat in fast passages. Baritone Zachary Nelson, a student of Sharon Christman's at CUA, had an attractive turn as Moralès.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, 'Carmen' Rises to Lowered Expectations (Washington Post, July 22)

T. L. Ponick, 'Carmen' as powerful as ever (Washington Times, July 22)
The opera was performed nearly complete, with a cut made in the March of the Toreadors in Act IV. The company chose not to use the recitative settings of the dialogue and had the singers speak the lines in English, which generally came off to embarrassing effect. The chorus of student performers was uneven vocally, when heard section by section, but gave an impressively full sound in spite of their somewhat reduced numbers. One of those impossibly cute parts of the opera, the chorus of street boys, was sung well by the unnamed children's chorus, whose enthusiasm was unmatched on the stage. Conductor H. Teri Murai, who is the director of orchestral activities at the Peabody Institute, seemed to struggle to keep all of his forces together at times. The orchestra, mostly student players especially in the strings, played exceptionally well (especially the serene flute solos in the introduction to Act III), with only a few blemishes in the brass. It is not a Carmen that offers enough reasons to see this over-performed opera another time. For the adventurous opera listener, the much more daring season at Wolf Trap Opera is still the best ticket in the area.

The remaining performances of Carmen are scheduled for Wednesday (July 23, 7:30 pm) and Sunday (July 27, 2:30 pm), at the Harman Center for the Arts (610 F St. NW). Summer Opera's 2009 season will be less adventurous, with productions of La Traviata and The Merry Widow.


Greg said...

I was at the Sunday performance, and was completely taken in by the bold directing choice of giving new and creative sub-plots to this very traditional opera:

Charles T. Downey said...

Yeah, Anne Midgette mentioned this in her review, that Zuniga gets murdered at the end of Act II. Livening up imaginary subplots is the last thing an opera director should be worried about, if you ask me.