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La Denycita

Denyce Graves in Carmen, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
Denyce Graves in Carmen, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
This year's production of Bizet's Carmen (see the piano-vocal score) was a late addition to the company's 2008-2009 season, reportedly displacing another production to a future season when its star, Denyce Graves, became available. The American mezzo-soprano, born here in Washington and an alumna of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, is a favorite with local audiences. For all of her struggles in recent years, personally and vocally, La Graves can still sell out a house, at least here in Washington. In fact, the opening night of this production felt somewhat like an opera gala, catering to the traditional tastes of audiences and the idiosyncratic whims of stars. Even the explanatory note in the program was not written by the director -- the production is old and has nothing to say, anyway -- but by Denyce Graves. The voice has lost none of its presence nor gained much in beauty, with an emphasis on the robust chest voice, which sounds forced from time to time. Her Carmen remains sexy, swaggering, headstrong, its dramatic scale tipped consistently toward emoting over subtlety.

Whether that is enough to make this recycled and rather humdrum production worthwhile depends on your tastes. Traditionalists and Graves fans will exult, others will take a pass. The pretty sets, designed by Allen Charles Klein, come from Austin Lyric Opera and look like just about every other staging of Carmen used over and over in regional opera companies, in fact, quite similar to the one from Virginia Opera reused just this summer by Summer Opera Theater. That it was basically the same set in each act, with a few bits and pieces changed, did not deter the enthusiastic audience from applauding most times that the curtain opened. The costumes, designed by Lennart Mörk, came from Washington's 1995 production, leaving director David Gately only to place the singers on the stage and tell them where and how to move. Not much thought seemed to have gone into those decisions: for example, the chorus of the cigarette girls sauntered out of the factory and then basically sat and stood around singing.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, WNO's 'Carmen': Its Charms Are All Too Familiar (Washington Post, November 10)

T. L. Ponick, 'Carmen' of unmet promise (Washington Times, November 10)

Stephen Brookes, That new Carmen feel (Washington Times, November 2)
It was a fairly static way to treat this strong libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on the novella (.PDF file) by Prosper Mérimée, and performed here without the sung recitative dialogue Bizet added later and much of the spoken lines cut. The rest of the casting was competent enough but not all that exciting either. As Don José, Operalia winner Thiago Arancam (Germán Villar was originally announced) had a swallowed tone but a full enough, if internally centered sound on the high notes. He tended to be musically unpredictable and had little of the jealous anguish and violent rage the role requires. Sabina Cvilak, who was the best part of last season's La Bohème, was a sweet, gentle Micaëla. The Escamillo of Alexander Vinogradov, whom we have reviewed once before in Santa Fe, provided the best singing of the evening, but while he looked the part of the toreador, small and slim, he lacked the oily swagger of the role.

Veteran conductor Julius Rudel added many of his own unusual tempi to the score on top of those imposed by La Graves. The orchestra had more than a few clunkers on opening night, in at least some cases because of the unpredictability of some of the singers. The woodwinds of this ensemble are in good form -- after all, they were the ones consistently heard at intermission, fine-tuning their intonation in exposed passages of the score coming up in the next act. At some point, someone is going to have to take a look at the horn section of this orchestra, who have made a discouraging number of gaffes in both Lucrezia Borgia and Carmen. Hopefully, the second cast of this production, who will be heard the first time tomorrow night (review forthcoming), will offer something new to this most conventional staging.

This production of Carmen continues through November 19, with Laura Brioli as Carmen, Brandon Jovanovich as Don José, and Jorge Lagunes as Escamillo on November 12, 14, and 18.

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