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In Review > North America

Carmen

ST. PAUL
Minnesota Opera
4/25/15

Signs assured apprehensive spectators, if any there were, that no tobacco products were used in Minnesota Opera’s recitative-free, season-capping new Carmen (seen Apr. 25, at the start of a double-cast, nine-performance run). Yet the chorus’ Act I paean to smoke, like most of Bizet’s scintillating score, sounded as intoxicating as ever — this despite a visually underwhelming production that reset the action in 1975 Seville, just after the death of Francisco Franco and long after mechanization had made Carmen and her cigarette-rolling colleagues redundant.

Heading the opening-night cast was the animated Nora Sourouzian, a fetching French-Canadian of Armenian ancestry, making an auspicious U.S. debut. She is already a captivating, self-possessed Carmen: her creamy mezzo, as dark as her eyes, is ideal for the role, her native French an inestimable boon. But her range of vocal color was narrow, her eroticism studied, her portrayal too calculated. Her dancing was largely confined to arm movements — a shortcoming deftly hidden by choreographer Heidi Spesard-Noble — and she slighted, inter alia, the suggestive portamenti of the Habanera. Sourouzian’s most affecting singing came in the card scene (in the company of Bergen Baker’s nimble Mercèdés and Siena Forest’s frisky Frasquita); by the opera’s closing minutes, clumsily staged by director Michael Cavanagh, she seemed tired, impatient for the end. 

Rafael Davila’s Don José, more petulant than ardent, didn’t quite meet the expectations raised by the tenor’s company debut last fall as Dick Johnson in La Fanciulladel West. Though sounding a mite overworked, his marvelous instrument rose to the challenge of the “Flower Song,” which ended exquisitely.  But Davila was less than convincing in his efforts to limn José’s gradual deterioration (which, smuggling apart, is nearly all the plot that Carmen has), and his scenes with Sourouzian were short on tension.

As for José’s nemesis, Kyle Ketelsen melded suavity and swagger as Escamillo; there was a dash of Elvis in his character. Attuned to the streak of self-parody in his music, Ketelsen managed not to be upstaged by the 1975 MG convertible that ferried him to the bullring.  Even better was the Norwegian soprano Marita K. Sølberg, who offered a polished and poignant account of Micaëla as an uptight bourgeoise, complete with color-coordinated luggage. Lesser roles were vividly sung: Christian Zaremba and Gerard Michael D’Emilio were randy soldiers; Brad Benoit and Andrew Lovato were smugglers with an attitude.

Music director Michael Christie, who continues to demonstrate the wisdom of his appointment, set orchestra and choruses ablaze, capturing the turbulence of Bizet’s “Gypsy” music, the nocturnal eloquence of the entr’acte preceding Act III, and the occasional echo of Offenbach. The staging, inexplicably drab, was another story. To my mind, the production team realized scant significance or immediacy, political or psychological, from updating the action. Crowd scenes lacked life; fights conveyed little danger. Erhard Rom’s set for Act III could hardly have been less atmospheric. Jessica Jahn clothed much of the cast in what looked like rummage-sale discards; lighting designer Mark McCullough seemed to waken with a start in Act IV. A clever mock bullfight in Act II suggested, ever so briefly, the inventiveness that might have been. spacer

LARRY FUCHSBERG

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