By Georges Bizet
Conductor: Steven Gatham
Director: David Gately
Carmen: Denyce Graves
Don José: Thiago Arancam
Escamillo: Alexander Vinogradov
Micaëla: Sabina Cvilak
Probably the most popular opera ever, Carmen has always been much loved by cognoscenti and unwashed alike thanks to its well-paced story, infectious tunes, and above all its irresistible, untamable heroine. Last night was the last performance of the WNO’s run and we were all grateful for the crowd-pleasing, if kind of predictable, production. It is quite understandable that in today's volatile market an artistic company needs to schedule a sure-fire hit among more adventurous choices, and having Denyce Graves, our local-who-made-it-big, impersonate her signature role was one more smart move to ensure that if the WNO presented it, the public would come. And they did.
And, let’s face it, our girl did a mostly wonderful job. While her voice took awhile to reach her full range, she was on solid and familiar ground once she got there, and her lower register in particular was very impressive. Her full-figured body moved with the devil-may-care swagger of the self-confident sex symbol, and her deep understanding of Carmen's behavior made her completely secure and fully engaged in her interpretation.
The cast around her was very capable as well. Thiago Arancam was a young, but very promising Don José. He did not have the all-around presence of an older or more experienced performer, but that actually suited the part pretty well, enhancing the weakness of his character that will lead the story to its tragic end. Alexander Vinogradov brought all the necessary manly bravado to Escamillo, and Sabina Cvilak, who shone last year in La Bohème, was a touchingly vulnerable Micaëla. The chorus also did a very good job, especially in the last scene where they convincingly conveyed the unrestrained excitement of a corrida crowd.
The visual elements did not hold any big surprises and were inconspicuously efficient. The set itself was pretty nondescript, but the color theme of each act was well thought out: in the first act, earthy shades gaily described everyday life in a Spanish town, delicate blue hues emphasized the clandestine lifestyle of the fugitive clan in the second act, while the third act was an explosion of vibrancy and euphoria, all bright lights and flamboyant colors. Some small details stood out a bit, such as the bright pink knee socks worn by Escamillo with his black velvet and gold toreador outfit, but everything generally came together very harmoniously.
My only real objection to Carmen is that I’ve always found the spoken parts to be an impediment in making it a true masterpiece, and I’m not saying that just because some of it was absolutely incomprehensible to my French ears last night. Of course, a lot of the French singing was incomprehensible to me as well, but understanding the words literally has never been the main point of opera singing, although a minimum grasp of it is definitely preferable. Emotions and plot twists can be just as effectively expressed by way of music, singing and acting while actual talking has never struck me as a necessary part of the equation. But that’s a small tiff; yesterday production was delightful on many levels and reminded us all why Carmen remains such a timeless and universal work.