Primary tabs

Accepting Carmen's Challenge

October 21, 2008

Why do so many folks disparage Bizet's Carmen? While certain pre-Freudian elements of its plot strain credulity, like Corporal Don José's instant obsession with the Gypsy woman Carmen and her final quest for death, Henri Meilhac and Jacques Halévy's libretto is far more believable than many. And Bizet's score certainly has its share of pretty, easily hummable tunes and opportunities for artists to shine.
The opera places great demands on its singers. West Bay Opera's cast on Friday's opening night (they reprise their roles on Oct. 19, 25, and 26 in the clear acoustic of Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Auditorium) did not uniformly wrestle the bull by the horns and achieve triumph, but their collective effort made for an enjoyable night of musical entertainment.

A scene from Carmen

Now in its second season under the directorship of José Luis Moscovich, West Bay Opera has already managed to pull itself financially out of the red. Determined to stay solvent in challenging economic times, Moscovich and the board of directors examined patterns of giving from corporations, foundations, and individual donors, and have cut costs by temporarily suspending the company's tradition of double casting.
High Production Values
You might expect budget cuts to be reflected in the quality of the production, but that's not the case. WBO not only built four different sets for the opera's four acts, it also allowed set designer Jean-Francois Revon and costume designer Beth Gilroy to create a colorful, multilayered production.

Abetted by Robert Ted Anderson's welcome lighting, the opera was far more of a visual feast than you often encounter at smaller, regional houses. There were a few costume faux pas — Micaëla looked like a cross between Florence Nightingale and a nun, and Don José resembled a down-and-out, overgrown Bohemian in the final act — yet there was plenty of color and flash to compensate.

Director David Cox went full out. Accustomed to seeing members of regional opera choruses look ridiculous in their attempts to act, I was delighted to discover young and veteran choristers alike who performed as if they actually believed what they were singing.

Sarah Barber (right) in the title role

Cox made the most of his young, agile singers. The interplay between Frasquita (Shauna Fallihee), Mercédès (Kindra Scharich), Le Dancaïre (Joaquin Quilez-Marin), and Le Remendado (Samuel Read Levine), all of whom are new to WBO's stage, was especially winning for its combination of vocal freshness, beauty, and physical freedom. Their Act 2 quintet with Carmen (debuting mezzo-soprano Sarah Barber) was the scene-stealer of the evening.

The contributions of conductor Michel Singher and his 25-person orchestra were equally rewarding. Although the timpani playing was weak, the strings produced lovely tone, and woodwinds were especially rich and colorful. Singher may not have made the entr'actes into much more than pretty interludes, but lovely they were.
A Seductress in Name Alone
As Carmen, Barber displayed a rich, well-controlled voice. The two-time Regional Finalist for the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and three-time prize-winner in the Denver Lyric Opera Guild's Competition summoned up tasteful snarl on low notes, sang strongly and beautifully on high ones, and did her best to wiggle her shoulders and hips. Unfortunately, her most delightful stage move, hoisting her dress over her knee with her teeth while her hands were tied, was not matched by a convincingly seductive or dangerous persona. Her card scene, for example, fell flat. Barber looked most at home in the final act, when she entered dressed, not as a factory worker or gypsy, but in the garb of a lady.

Benjamin Bongers as Don José

The Don José, Benjamin Bongers, joins a long and illustrious list of large-proportioned tenors who have no choice but to convince by voice alone. Bongers' voice is sufficiently big and steely to have landed him two roles at San Francisco Opera, but it is far more suited for heldentenor than lyric and dramatic assignments. The Flower Song ("La fleur que tu m'avais jetée"/"The flower you threw at me") began as a series of disconnected words and phrases, projected in anything but cantabile manner. Surprisingly, for the only time all evening, Bongers produced a rewardingly connected sotto voce (muted tone) as he rose to the climactic B-flat. It wasn't enough. Nor did his pronunciation, especially in spoken dialogue, remotely resemble the real thing.

Rebecca Sjöwall as Micaëla

Our Micaëla, the debuting soprano Rebecca Sjöwall, is a recent master's graduate in vocal performance from UCLA whose slew of honors include two-time district winner in the Met National Council Auditions and winner of the American Jenny Lind Competition. Sjöwall started out tremulous and less than pure-voiced, but rallied to produce an exceedingly lovely "Je dis, que rien ne m'épouvante" (I said that nothing can frighten me). Standing alone at center stage, she lit up the proceedings with glowing, sweet tone and a radiant persona, which rightfully reaped some of the longest applause of the evening.

Jason Detwiler (center) as Escamillo

As a longtime proponent of baritone Jason Detwiler (Escamillo), I was delighted to see the former Opera San José Principal Resident Artist in trim, exceedingly fit form. Although his voice has a finish that puts it in a class by itself, it seemed less strong and more occluded (or at least set farther back in the throat) than on previous occasions. He is set to debut with San Diego Opera as Yamadori in Madama Butterfly, and I hope that his current vocal instructor (if any) does not further mask the exceptional beauty and force of his gifts. Another Opera San José veteran, bass Carlos Aguilar, made his WBO debut as a forceful, solid, if less-than-impeccably-voiced Zuniga.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.