Bizet: Carmen

Glimmerglass Opera

Cooperstown, New York, 8 July 2011 3 stars

Nozze The 2011 Glimmerglass Festival (formerly Glimmerglass Opera) marks the first year of programming under Francesca Zambello, the iconoclastic opera director appointed Artistic and General Director of the festival in September 2010. Life will no longer be the same in and around Cooperstown.

For this new production of Bizet’s Carmen, Zambello (who will be directing two of this season’s four operatic/musical theater productions) decided to shake things up and engage veteran theater director Anne Bogart to craft a production that would capture, to quote Bogart, "…the fluidity and theatricality of a film set." Saturday evening’s sold-out, opening-night performance suggests that, in this Bizet classic, life will no longer be the same in and around Seville, either.

Bogart, the Artistic Director for SITI (a contemporary theatrical ensemble dedicated in part to training young theater artists), crafts and sustains action onstage that is full of energy, motion, vitality, spirit and purpose — a joie-de-vivre that keeps all eyes glued to the stage (throughout the nearly three-hour production I never once longed to play with my iPhone). Action continues onstage even during the overture and entr’actes to Acts 2, 3 and 4. And there always seems to be a sense of purpose to the action onstage; nothing here is gratuitous or overdone.

In her first lead role, 24-year-old mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson forged an alluring Carmen who gained immediate credibility as the gypsy femme fatale when she first appeared onstage to deliver her character-defining Habanera.

The beguiling looks and naturally dark skin of the Palermo-born singer (whom some will remember as the Indian woman Wowkle in the Met’s HD Simulcast of La Fanciulla del West last January) obviates the need for heavy makeup and wigs — unlike the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Latvian mezzo-soprano, Elīna Garanĉa, who played Carmen at the Met early last year. Whether slinking around in a sheer, body-clinging gown or dancing table-top at Lillias Pastia’s Tavern, Costa-Jackson has what it takes to command attention. And that’s what the role demands.

NozzeAt this early stage in her promising career, Costa-Jackson’s dark mezzo-soprano is not yet a sizeable vocal presence. True, her voice is sturdy enough to stand out from the chorus of cigarette factory women, but I often found myself wishing her voice would come to me, rather than the other way around. Still, her voice is impressive in that there are no discernable changes of timbre we have come to expect as mezzos change vocal registers during leaps and wide scalewise passages. There were no seams in the spacious octave leaps that permeate the Seguidilla.

As an actress, however, Costa-Jackson lacks consistency. The role of Carmen must be cool, calculating and utterly fearless, even in the face of immediate death. Costa-Jackson exudes sufficient stoicism throughout the first two acts, but in the third-act Card Aria she shows increasing alarm and frustration as the fortune cards continually predict death — first for her, then for Don José. In the final act, rather than accept her fate Carmen displays fear and misgivings when Frasquita and Mercedes warn her that Don José is lurking among the crowd.

As Micaëla, Anya Matanovič — in her Glimmerglass Festival debut — delivered the most impressive vocal effort of the evening and a solid acting effort, as well. Dressed in a humble, plain-Jane costume, Matanovič projected an image of the iconic character Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz — fresh out of Kansas. She played her character to perfection, projecting an aura of innocence, simplicity and purity that contrasted sharply with that of Carmen. The result was a clearly defined choice of good or evil for Don José to consider (had it been me, Matanovič’s golden soprano would have been more than enough to turn my back on Carmen and return home to mother).

The lustrous quality of Matanovič’s sinuous soprano, with its golden timbre and silky-smooth legato, charmed the ears immediately when we first encounter her as a frightened peasant girl who has wandered far from home in search of her elusive fiancé. Her performance in the exquisitly written duet with Don José (Ma mère, je la vois) evoked endless shades of feeling and nuance.

Matanovič’s signature third-act aria (Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante), which proved the artistic highpoint of the production, might have been used in a master-class to demonstrate nuance of phrasing, control of dynamics, maintaining quality of the high register and confident, effortless delivery. This was a first-class performance, and the most satisfying Micaëla I have heard to date.

It took Adam Diegel, as the ill-fated corporal, Don José, much of the first two acts to find his voice. And once he found it, it was quite attractive.

Diegel, whose hefty, self-confident tenor many will remember from his role as Cavaradossi in last season’s Glimmerglass production of Tosca, appeared uneasy early on — his voice thin and tight as if forced to sing with a noose around his neck. His problems were most evident during the first-act duet with Matanovič, where Diegel’s herky-jerky melodic phrases from note-to-note stood in stark contrast to his paramour’s velvety legato.

Diegel’s voice briefly regained its power and command following the Seguidilla, but then reverted to the earlier problems during the second-act Flower Song, before finally reaching full throttle toward the close of the third-act. Diegel’s voice had power to spare throughout the final act, hitting his high notes solidly and with panache.

As an actor, Diegel was mostly unconvincing. The role of Don José demands an actor who projects the agony of a proud man torn between two very different worlds — an exciting one ruled entirely by compulsion, and a virtuous but boring one leading to redemption. We saw none of this dichotomy in his character, just a narrow grab-bag of stock expressions and, during moments of anger, overacting.

Bass-baritone Keith Miller, as the charismatic toreador (and rival to Don José in Carmen’s affections) Escamillo, looked spectacular when we first see him enter Lillias Pastia’s Tavern in Act 2 in a gangster-like pin-stripe suit, gold-chain and spats, and again dressed to the nines in his toreador regalia in Act 4.

Miller was in sturdy voice as Wells Fargo stagecoach agent Ashby in the Met’s La Fanciulla del West last January, and again a year earlier as Zuniga in the Met’s spectacular production of Carmen. Hopes were high, then, for Miller’s Glimmerglass Festival debut Saturday. Alas, the brawny bass-baritone appeared to be fighting hoarseness (singing through a cold, perhaps?) that affected his high register throughout much of the performance. To his credit, Miller belted out his character’s signature Toreador Song (and third-act duet with Diegel), apparently content to capture the moment dramatically, if not in voice. I imagine that Miller’s voice will recover in time for the next performance on July 9.

Young Artist Aaron Sorensen seemed miscast as the unctuous Captain of the dragoons, Zuniga. Sorensen, whose performance last season as the disheveled political prisoner Angelotti in the Glimmerglass production of Tosca revealed a promising but under-projected bass-baritone, showed great improvement Saturday in the focusing of his pleasant, deep baritone. In this production he still looks disheveled — and his lank posture and wimpy onstage demeanor did little to add weight and credence to his character. When Sorensen struggled to break up the unruly cigarette factory workers and restore order in Act 1, I for one began to fear that the girls would soon take this man down. Hard.

Young Artists soprano Lindsay Russell (last season’s Laurie in The Tender Land) and mezzo-soprano Cynthia Hanna, as Frasquita and Mercedes, respectively, brightened the stage immeasurably as the lively pair of gypsy cohorts to Carmen. Their delightful third-act duet, in which the two coyly importune the cards to reveal who their future lovers will be, brought smiles across the faces of the listeners. In spite of the disparity in vocal ranges, Russell and Hanna were remarkably well-paired in terms of tone quality: Try as I might I couldn’t tell whether the singers were switching parts to keep the higher voice in the soprano (Bizet wrote the parts in overlapping fashion, which doesn’t always work especially well).

Set and Costume Director James Schuette’s economy-minded set design, set in the 1920s and comprising three unadorned walls, a wooden table and some chairs, looked as if purloined from an Ingmar Bergman film. For much of the production the rear wall of the set was removed — unabashedly exposing the rear of the Alice Busch Theater stage, as if the opera had been designed as experimental theater. Happily, Bogart’s animated staging proved to be a welcome attention-grabber, designed perhaps to keep the listener’s eyes focused more on the characters than on their surroundings. The look and feel of the drab costumes worn by the cigarette workers, soldiers and smugglers were generally in-harmony with Bogart’s post-World War I period staging, although a more colorful assortment of gypsy attire might have been easier on the eyes.

Robert Wierzel’s clever lighting effects helped ease the monotony of the impoverished set, such as his illumination of the cigarette factory workers as the women make their way onstage from the factory in Act 1, and again as the children prance onstage for their chorus. Barney O’Hanlon, another member of SITI, crafted some lively choreography at Lillias Pastia’s Tavern that was suitably energetic (if not borderline orgiastic).

Conductor Director David Angus led a well-prepared and enthusiastic Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in a rendition of the score that generally favored quicker tempos. At times Angus’s tempos were just a bit too spunky for comfort — such as in the sultry Habanera, which at this tempo could not quite capture the aura of seduction built in to the mesmerizing Spanish dance.

Credit Angus for keeping the chorus in-sync with the orchestra even during the busiest and most challenging ensemble numbers, such as in the pandemonium that follows the fight between Carmen and Manuelita, and again during the rapid parlando ensemble section in the second-act Quintet at Lillias Pastia’s Tavern.

The Glimmerglass Festival Chorus was strong in voice and sang with superb ensemble throughout the evening. The nine soldiers delivered their dotted-rhythmic patterns in the opening number with good execution, and the stirring ensemble of gypsy smugglers at the end of Act 2 was right-on. The Act 1 Children’s Chorus, comprising a gleeful assortment of eight girls and four boys, was especially vibrant as they mimicked the soldiers, moving about the stage enthusiastically and singing tutti-ensemble to a steady beat during the march.

The current Glimmerglass production reverts to Bizet’s original opéra-comique format, meaning it uses spoken dialogue in place of the more usual recitatives that had been the tradition ever since composer Ernest Guiraud re-worked the opera just months after its 1875 premiere. But while historically accurate, the presence of spoken dialogue invites problems for the singers, who tend to sing in French better than they can speak it.

Diction in the current production was all over the place, ranging from rather good (Ginger Costa-Jackson, whose preparation for the role took her to Paris) to downright poor. Perhaps there’s merit to doing the spoken parts in English, as is often done in this country for German singspiel, such as in Die Zauberflöte.

Audience reaction to the performance was decidedly enthusiastic, with frequent applause between numbers and a (mostly) standing ovation at the end. Curiously, the crowd found ample places within the performance to laugh — suggesting perhaps that the term opéra-comique denotes more to some listeners than just spoken dialogue.

By David Abrams

Photo credits: Julieta Cervantes/Glimmerglass Opera.



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