For an opera that’s so widely known and beloved by the public, it makes sense why the Los Angeles Opera would want to play it safe with its recent production of “Carmen.”
On Sep. 9, 2017, the LA Opera opened its 2017-18 season with the Bizet masterpiece, with superstar soprano Ana María Martínez in the title role. Just four years ago, the company opened its 2013-14 season with the exact same production (and, comically, the exact same poster, with Martínez’s face photoshopped over the body of another Carmen). Moreover, this is the fourth time Emilio Sagi’s “Carmen” has graced the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Commissioned originally for Teatro Real in Madrid, the production first came to Los Angeles in 2004, and again in 2008.
Inoffensive, But Not Quite Right
There are two perspectives in which Sagi’s production can be viewed: one is from an innovator’s standpoint, and the other from a traditionalist. Firstly, this “Carmen” isn’t tailored for contemporary operaphiles — and that’s okay. From this standpoint, it could be said that LA Opera is preserving the original art form by elevating convention on it’s most affluent scale. As is the case with this “Carmen,” the company is using the opera’s popularity to its advantage to attract the public into filling seats, and it’s working: its original six-performance run was extended by one show to accommodate astronomical ticket sales. In turn, LA Opera is doing the right thing to enhance the company’s reputation — by mixing new and innovative productions with time-honored masterpieces. Designer Gerardo Trotti’s scenery — set in its traditional Seville setting — is grandly lavish and opulent. The expansive set travels all the way to the back of the stage, and the many tiers and asymmetry add lifelike appeal.
However, that isn’t to say there weren’t issues. There is nothing overtly wrong or offensive about Sagi’s production, but that’s the problem. In a city that prides itself on the unconventional and avant-garde performance practices, LA Opera remains keen on sticking with the classics, at least on the mainstage. But there is a way to produce Opera’s Greatest Hits without repeating the same, overdone productions of yesteryear. One could argue that the opera’s advancement will plateau with productions this traditional (not to mention Los Angeles audiences have seen it one too many times before). This was also the case with the costumes. Though impeccably tailored, they were a blasé mix of neutral colors, which did nothing for its singers. The most interesting part about Carmen is her fiery personality — however, she’s completely washed out in Act I in a tepid blend of whites and tans.
LA Opera tapped director Ron Daniels this time around to lead the show, though there weren’t too many differences between Saturday’s performance and what was seen just four years ago. Daniels had a habit of keeping the singers stationary — for example, Don José and Micaëla’s Act I duet was a textbook case of “park and bark.” Quite literally, they just stood there and sang. Additionally, so much could have been done to enhance the opera’s most famous aria, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (known colloquially as the “Habanera”).” Instead, Carmen simply stands in the middle of the stage and sings to the audience, mixed intermittently with walking and subtle dancing. One wishes there could have been more to this beloved moment in all of opera.
This Time Around…
However, what saves the otherwise chalky production is it’s fabulous musicality. What audiences missed the last time “Carmen” came to Los Angeles was Music Director James Conlon’s superb conducting. Conlon extracted only the most sensual and exciting tones from the talented orchestra, such as with its repeated “Toreador” theme.
The same can be said for its singing. Perhaps by limiting singers into the confines of fach, the public misses out on some truly great interpretations. This argument is overwhelmingly supported with Martínez’s Carmen. In a role mostly sung by mezzos, she oozed sexuality and mischief as the opera’s flawed protagonist, seen at its peak during her Seguidilla. Martínez is as fine an actress as she is a musician — her thick lower register made her execution all the more alluring.
Martínez was finely supported by the remainder of the cast. In his LA Opera debut, tenor Riccardo Massi is quickly making a name for himself in the United States. He possesses a sizable voice that filled the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with beautiful overtones, seen distinctly in his “Flower Song” in Act II. Rather than seen as a hopeless romantic in love, his Don José is stemmed in childlike adoration for Carmen’s affection, which turns to bitter jealousy when his ardor is later rejected. His passion is seen most effectively in the opera’s final scene, in which he kills Carmen in a fit of rage and despair. Massi is a force to be reckoned with, and one hopes to see him make a home in US-based opera houses.
Soprano Amanda Woodbury was an ideal Micaëla, both physically and dramatically. A former member of the company’s Domingo-Thornton (now Domingo-Colburn-Stein) Young Artist Program, Woodbury sang the role as a young artist in 2013. Four years later, she has enhanced the role with her own development and maturity. A more girlish Micaëla back then, the role has matured with her, as she added depth to the overall static character, particularly in Act III. Her aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” was the most beautiful moment of the three hour and 25 minute production.
Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov made a moody yet electric Escamillo, as evident in his entrance aria. LA Opera tapped a number of its young artists in the opera’s comprimario roles. As Frasquita, soprano Liv Redpath stood out above all with her metallic, vibrant sound. Baritone Juan Carlos Heredia, new to the Domingo-Colburn-Stein program, has a delicious timbre that added warmth to Moralès. Tenor Brian Michael Moore and baritone Theo Hoffman, as Le Remendado and Le Dancaïre, respectively, showed fine musicality and promise in Act II’s quintet.
There are six remaining performances of Carmen. The production runs until Oct. 1 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.