What do you get when you take all of the fire and passion out of Bizet’s Carmen? Well, you have Bizet’s fabulous music, some of the most familiar and most beloved in the entire operatic repertoire that’s been packing opera houses and thrilling audiences since it premiered in 1875, for one thing. Okay, now take that listless production, perform the music indifferently, and what do you have?
You have the production of Carmen we saw at Lyric Opera last night.
I hardly know where to start in describing last night’s performance. We approached the last opera in our 2005-2006 Lyric Opera season with eager anticipation. We’d seen the production itself (the sets, costumes, etc.) twice before—both times with Denyce Graves as Carmen and we knew that it was a good realization of Bizet’s work.
Carmen is a mythic creature—like the sirens of Greek mythology or the fox-women of Chinese folktales—an irresistible force leading men to their doom. Viktoria Vizin’s Carmen had the sex appeal of a potted plant. She’s not physically unattractive but I’ve seen fat, dumpy mezzos whose Carmens were alluring and seductive. I guess either you’ve got or you ain’t. Viktoria Vizin ain’t.
Her acting in the Fourth Act was better but, as my wife pointed out, her stage business was cribbed from the performances of famous soprani of the past.
Her singing also had, well, problems. She lacked breath control or support, taking many more breaths than necessary which ruined the musicality of the melodic lines.
In all fairness her performance did improve through the opera. But you only get to make one first impression and the impression we received from her First Act performance wasn’t good.
Now Don Jose. I think it’s possible for a short fat tenor to give a great performance as Don Jose. Vincenzo La Scola’s portrayal of the soldier whose obsession with Carmen drives him to ruin, murder, and death leaves you completely in the dark as to what Carmen sees in this nebbish. His singing was not thrilling. His acting was perfunctory. Don Jose is not an incredibly demanding tenor role although his Second Act aria, “La Fleur”, does have a trickily-placed, fading B♭. That’s about it. It’s well within La Scola’s abilities but there was no excitement in his performance last night. We’ve heard La Scola before and he’s been much better.
Patricia Racette’s First Act Micaela filled us with foreboding. She obviously had the pipes for it but there was something lacking—a clarity or purity of voice that one expects in a Micaela. However, she completely redeemed herself with her Third Act aria. Overall a good performance and she distinctly gave the impression she would have made a better Carmen than Carmen.
Mark Doss’s entrance in the Second Act as Escamillo seemed to energize the entire cast. He performed the famous Toreador Song with verve and power. We’ve seen him before in the role and he’s always been good. I did think he shouted a little too much.
The orchestra was lacklustre, the chorus was singing off key, the crowd scenes had the expectedly lousy Lyric staging, supporting players didn’t blend vocally with the principals. I could go on and on. I’ve seen student productions that were better.
At the end of the opera the audience applauded uproariously. Cast, instrumentalists, conductor: it wasn’t for you. It was for Bizet, dead these 130 years.
See a better performance of Carmen. This one wasn’t worthy of Lyric.
The only thing that saved Carmen from being dead last was Bizet’s thrilling, miraculous music.
UPDATE: John von Rhein’s review of Carmen is considerably more favorable than mine so perhaps other performances by this cast were better than the one I saw last night. Could the cast have been ill? Note, however, that he saw some of the same things as I did:
Vizin seemed to grow more comfortable in Carmen’s skin as Thursday’s performance went on. If in the first couple of acts she engaged the audience more by the luster of her singing than through dramatic conviction, Carmen’s final confrontation with Jose outside the Seville bullring was the real thing…
Vincenzo La Scola may not have looked or acted the most believable Jose one has ever seen, but he certainly sang the role more beautifully and securely than either of his predecessors this season.
Laura Emerick’s review in the Sun-Times is more favorable yet. She certainly heard and saw something different than I did last night.