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Clémentine Margaine Seduces Vocally in WNO 'Carmen'

Clémentine Margaine (Carmen), Michael Todd Simpson (Escamillo), and cast, Carmen, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)

It is too soon for another production of Bizet's Carmen, reviewed just last year at Santa Fe Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, and Virginia Opera. The last time Washington National Opera mounted the work was only in 2008, and yet here it was again, opening the company's 60th anniversary season on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. The thing that this version has going for it, in an otherwise variable production, is French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine at the top of the first cast.

Carmen is not a dancing role, and it is not about playing the castanets, although a singer who can do either of those things convincingly may have a leg up in her characterization. Carmen is a role for an operatic mezzo-soprano, and that is where Margaine excelled, by using her powerful voice, which filled the hall amply with a sort of whiskey-infused burn, to create the character. This was a Carmen who demanded attention, who could roar and impose herself on others, who could seduce -- all principally with her voice, which is ideally how an operatic character should reveal her nature.

The dancing was mostly handled by a pair of flamenco dancers (Fanny Ara and Timo Nuñez, choreography by Sara Erde), and the castanets were left to a capable player in the pit. Margaine got off to a slightly rough start, pushing her pitch flat in the first act a couple times, but the voice only grew on me as an exemplar of the brusque, almost mannish type of Carmen, able to shake the rafters with her cries of "La liberté!" One moment could stand for an entire evening of such vocal characterization: when Escamillo, at the end of the Toreador Song, exchanged a motif ("L'amour") with Frasquita, Mercédès, and Carmen, there was no doubt to whom he would be attracted, for her voice left the others in the dust (see picture above).

Unfortunately, little else in this production was quite so certain. Tenor Bryan Hymel took part of the summer off for vocal rest this year, backing out of Rigoletto at Santa Fe Opera, and it sounded like that was a good idea. Some uneven moments crept into the voice here and there as Don José, although he still had the goods for a mostly polished performance of "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée." Soprano Janai Brugger was not as free and pure on the high notes of Micaëla as best suits the character's innocence, and Michael Todd Simpson had an extremely off night as Escamillo, singing out of tune and often not really reaching either low or high notes. The robust Mercédès of mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano stood out in the supporting cast.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO’s ‘Carmen’: Enlivening the familiar (Washington Post, September 21)

Philip Kennicott, The 2015-2016 Season begns at WNO (, September 20)

Alex Baker, Thank you for smoking (Parterre Box, September 21)

Jessica Vaughan, ‘Carmen’ at Washington National Opera (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, September 20)
Other than the flamenco dancers and some colorful costumes (designed by François St-Aubin), the production directed by E. Loren Meeker was fairly workaday, with abstract painted backdrops in lieu of sets for some of the scenes (designed by Michael Yeargan). The last act's arena was done cheaply but effectively as an audience stand that cut across the stage, where the chorus waved and cheered. In the third act, the smugglers make camp in a ruined church, with the vestiges of what looked like a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which might imply that the action has been transposed to Mexico. Superimposed on the image of the Virgin was a mysterious hand marked with symbols, probably meant to be a reference to the Tarot and palm-reading activities of Carmen and her compatriots, but looking to me like a Guidonian hand more than anything else.

It was surprising to see conductor Evan Rogister back on the podium after his somewhat shaky outing in Moby-Dick last season. Rogister's technique remains baffling to my eye, as he seems to conduct with his head, arms, and shoulders simultaneously, sometimes in different tempi. The frenetic style of gesture did little to unify the performers, either in the pit or on the platform, leading to a couple near-disasters in big choral scenes. Rogister and Meeker chose to use some of the spoken dialogue and some of the later recitatives, all in French, with the aim of keeping the drama moving. Any impetus gained was counteracted by Rogister's tempo and rubato choices, which dragged out many parts of the score.

This production runs through October 3, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Some performances feature a second cast, whom we will review later this week.

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