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Washington National Opera

In Review Carmen DC lg 1215
Carmen at Washington National Opera, with Hymel and Margaine
© Scott Suchman/WNO

WITH APPOMATTOX , its first Philip Glass work, and its first complete Ring cycle on the horizon, not to mention a staging of Lost in the Stars, Washington National Opera turned to something more conventional to open its sixtieth season on September 19. But there was nothing routine about the production of Carmen at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Attractively cast, fluently directed by E. Loren Meeker and incisively conducted by Evan Rogister, the venture crackled with energy from the top of the Prelude to Act I. Fanny Ara and Timo Nunez, choreographed by Sara Erde, offered suitably sultry flamenco duets here and during the Preludes to Acts III and IV. Rogister and Meeker opted for an effective mesh of Guiraud recitatives and modest amounts of spoken dialogue, some complete with their original underscoring. The result was a taut, swift-moving version of the opera.

French mezzo Clémentine Margaine, in her company debut, acted the title role with confidence and perhaps one spread-leg pose too many. (She did get some amusing mileage in the Lillas Pastia scene by trying out various alluring positions before Don José’s arrival.) Other than the card scene, when her voice sounded cloudy, the mezzo maintained a juicy, even tone and sculpted phrases vividly. Bryan Hymel, in another company debut, was an impressive José, effortlessly pouring out tonal honey and producing plenty of heft as needed—and not needed, as in the flower song, when the tenor surely could have capped “Et j’étais une chose a toi” with the written pianissimo B-flat, rather than the usual belting. His otherwise suave, deeply poetic account of the aria hit the spot. 

Michael Todd Simpson was a slim-fit Escamillo who slipped easily from bravado strut into romantic smoothness. If his voice was on the dry side, its volume limited, compensation came from the baritone’s keenly detailed singing in Acts III and IV. In her company debut, Janai Brugger, as Micaela, pricked up ears immediately with the tenderness and solidity of her tone and the intensely expressive yet unforced quality of her phrasing.

Kenneth Kellogg used his ample, smooth voice to keen effect as Zuniga. A quartet of current and former members of the Domingo–Cafritz Young Artist Program—Ariana Wehr (Frasquita), Aleksandra Romano (Mercédès), Christian Bowers (Dancaire) and Rexford Tester (Remendado)—provided bright singing and dynamic acting as Carmen’s gypsy pals. Another young artist, Hunter Enoch, revealed a warm baritone as Moralès. 

The chorus did sturdy, responsive work. The men, in particular, were responsible for one of the finest moments of the evening, when, as the soldiers were awaiting the cigarette girls, they phrased “La cloche a sonné” with exquisite subtlety. Rogister’s sensitive guidance at that point was matched by his unhurried, beautifully nuanced conducting of the Act III Prelude; he made sure that the accompaniment patterns in the strings emerged as eloquently as the flute solo. Other than occasionally wayward horns, the orchestra was in admirable form throughout.

Michael Yeargan’s production, finely lit by Robert Wierzel (except for some clichéd splashes of red), generated abundant atmosphere, as did the costumes by François St-Aubin and Timm Burrow. The final scene proved particularly potent, allowing a vibrant side view of spectators in the arena, with shards of light from between the bleachers slicing through the dreadful denouement below.  —Tim Smith

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