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Okulitch and Rishoi in Cincinnati's Carmen
© Philip Groshong 2014
Cincinnati Opera opened its ninety-fourth season on June 12 with Carmen. Making his Cincinnati Opera debut, conductor Marc Piollet launched the prelude with great energy, but the opening-night performance never quite caught fire.
It was a strong cast, though many of the singers might have made a more favorable impression under other conditions. Stacey Rishoi, who has been heard to good effect in smaller roles in recent seasons, seemed a rather subdued, small-scale Carmen. Tall and slender, she was a strikingly handsome figure onstage, but her attractive, dark voice did not project well. That had not been a problem in her earlier appearances in the house, and most of the rest of the cast seemed to be similarly challenged. Some of the difficulty came from the set — a pair of massive walls that directed sound upward rather than out into the house. Another impediment was Alain Gauthier's staging, which often took principals to the back of the stage. And some of the responsibility lies with conductor Piollet, who allowed the orchestra to cover the singers on a number of occasions, although the balance he achieved at some moments — such as the smugglers' quintet in Act II — was exemplary.
As Don José, William Burden was also disadvantaged by the acoustic environment, but he presented a fully realized portrait of the unhappy soldier's growing desperation. His flower song was one of the highlights of the evening, and he was riveting in the final scene.
More than a decade ago, Daniel Okulitch appeared with Cincinnati Opera in minor roles in The Magic Flute and Salome. It was good to welcome him back as Escamillo. He managed the peculiar tessitura of the role without difficulty. Like the others in the cast, however, his vocal impact was limited except when he was near the footlights.
That was not the case for Laquita Mitchell, whose substantial lyric soprano carried well no matter where she was onstage. And Mitchell made Micaela into a positive presence, giving a shining account of her aria in Act III. (Kudos to the horn players as well.)
As always in Cincinnati, secondary roles were strongly cast. Nathan Stark, who has been heard here as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, was a Zuniga of real stature. Frasquita (Alexandra Schoeny), Mercédès (Elizabeth Pojanowski), Remendado (Aaron Blake) and Dancairo (Sumner Thompson) were excellent in ensemble and in solo moments. Joseph Lattanzi, a Cincinnati Opera Young Artist making his debut, was a sturdy Moralès.
There was solid work from the Cincinnati Opera Chorus and the well-drilled children's chorus. Jeff Rebudal provided delightful choreography for the tavern scene and before the bullfight in the final act, a bright moment leading up to the stark conclusion. It is a luxury to have the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit. They were a tremendously exciting presence in the opening of Act II; unfortunately, their delicate playing of the atmospheric entr'acte opening Act III was compromised by a talkative audience.
The production, originated by Florida Grand Opera and borrowed from Atlanta, was rather plain, with those enormous walls angled at each side of the stage. For each act, that basic unit was accessorized with beams, platforms and stairs to suggest each location. The result often left a relatively small performing area, which usually appeared crowded. It was most effective for Act IV, during which the final tragedy unfolded in an open space. Gauthier's generally unobtrusive direction occasionally raised some questions — e.g., why was a nun playing the guitar in Lillas Pastia's tavern?
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