BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's CARMEN is Sultry and Opulent
Closing their 2013-14 Season, Houston Grand Opera is presenting a co-production of Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago's take on Georges Bizet's acclaimed CARMEN. The popular opera did not create much of a stir in its original 1875 run and wouldn't gain popularity until the late 1880s, after Georges Bizet's death. For this production, Award winning Broadway Director and Choreographer Rob Ashford took the reins and has created a CARMEN that is as beautiful as it is exciting.
Familiar with the story and selections from the score, I was excited to see my first production of CARMEN on its opening night. CARMEN, based on the novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée, recounts the fall of Don José, a soldier who is seduced by the Gypsy charms of the sexy but feisty Carmen. Pursuing Carmen, Don José abandons his first love, Micaela, and his military duties. Despite his sacrifices, he loses Carmen's love to the handsome and beloved toreador Escamillo. Jealousy rears its ugly head, leading audiences to CARMEN's tragic conclusion.
Rob Ashford artfully blends his choreography and direction to give audiences a CARMEN that feels more like musical theatre than opera. With a bevy of Broadway veterans as solo dancers, he opens the production with brawny bullfighters taking on Rasta Thomas's strapping bull. Cleverly, Rob Ashford has Rasta Thomas's bull appear on stage anytime the score features "The Motive of Fate" theme (first heard during section C of "Prelude"). Thus, the bull becomes a haunting reminder of how Carmen and Don José both play with and fall victim to fate. Furthermore, Rob Ashford never misses an opportunity to fill the stage with movement, sensual dances, and passion. His robust vision for the production highlights the sexuality and emotionality of the show, ensuring that the audience is just as entranced by Carmen as the men she courts and guaranteeing that we are moved by the production's portrayals of lust, passion, desire, romance, violence, obsession, jealousy, and fear.
Taking on the meaty role of Carmen, Ana Maria Martinez crafts a steamy and strong feminine character that is equal parts fire and steel. She easily manipulates the men she encounters with her wiles and charms, but the audience quickly learns that there is more to Carmen than her jaw-dropping looks. She vehemently tells the soldiers who question her about the fight in cigarette factory that they can cut her or burn her and that she'll never kowtow to them and tell them what happened. As Carmen, Ana Maria Martinez puts the witch in bewitching, vacillating between being sultry (i.e. her dance for Don José during "Je vais danser en votre honneur...La fleur que tu m'avais jetée...Non! Tu ne m'aimes pas!") and being incredibly steadfast (i.e. her arguments with Don José in Act III during "Écoute, compagnon, écoute" and "Finale: Holà holà José!"). We also she her vulnerability when she reads her own tarot cards on the mountain, and she is distraught by drawing the death card (during "Quant au douanier, c'est notre affaire").
Vocally, Ana Maria Martinez delivers lush, gorgeous vocals, bringing the spirited Carmen to life with clean and dynamic performances. Her take on the well-known "Habanera" aria and her pairings with other vocalists throughout the evening were delightful. While I have no other artists to compare her against, I cannot think of a better singer to perform the role of Carmen for my first experience of seeing the opera live.
Brandon Jovanovich's tenor instrument is well suited for the role of Don José. His delicate, breathy vocals in Acts I and II beautifully contradict his heavily tormented tonality that slowly deepens through Acts III & IV, which earned him several bravas during applause breaks. He sings with tangible emotions, and he makes his transition from good boy solider to obsessive and terrifying, scorned lover palpably chilling. Even knowing what was going to ultimately happen, I found myself glued to the edge of my seat during "Finale: C'est toi! - C'est moi!"
Houston favorite Ryan McKinny is astounding as the confident, handsome, and altogether glamorous toreador Escamillo. His polished and luxurious bass-baritone voice perfectly commands our attention during "Toreador Song: Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre." With an appealing but conceited air, he delivers sterling performances during "Finale: Holà holà José!" and "Les voici, voici la quadrille ... Si tu m'aimes, Carmen."
With a delicate and sweet soprano instrument, Natalya Romaniw bleeds innocence and purity all over the stage as Micaela. Her tender and heartfelt rendition of "C'est les contrabandiers le refuge ordinaire" showcased her unyielding love for the self-destructing Don José. Furthermore, her soft and plush vocals on songs like "Sur la place chacun passé," "Parle-moi de ma mere," and "Finale: Holà holà José!" further emphasize her naïve wholesomeness, allowing her to be the most sympathetic character in the production. Moreover, she serves as an excellent parallel to Carmen because she, despite her own fears, is willing to boldly address the woman who has beguiled her lover.
Mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule is fun and spunky as Carmen's friend Mercedes. Likewise, Uliana Alexyuk is appearing in her fifth HGO production this season, and skillfully showcases her ability to hit soprano notes in the stratosphere as Carmen's friend Frasquita. She is one HGO Studio Artist that will hopefully be gracing Houston stages many more times in the coming years.
David Rockwell's primary Set Design for CARMEN uses curved lines much like the original Broadway Set Design of MAMMA MIA, and it smartly gives the impression of a bullfighting ring. His Act III Set Design for the mountain utilizes large, angular "boulders" that impress and give the audience the impression of being high up.
Julie Weiss's vibrant and splashy Costume Design keenly uses colors to expose character traits and flaws for the entirety of the principal cast. These ambitious and lovely recreations of Spanish fashions adroitly give audiences everything they would expect from a production of CARMEN all while filling the stage with dazzling hues.
Every element of Houston Grand Opera's presentation of CARMEN treats audiences to an enjoyable evening of opera. The vocals and dancing, especially the movements performed by Rasta Thomas, Jessica Bishop, Kristina Covillo, Marko Germar, Stephanie Kim, Marty Lawson, Erica Mansfield, Sarah O'Gleby, Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva, Michaeljon Slinger, Ryan Steele, Alex Michael Stoll, and Samantha Zack, are opulent and captivating. The sets, costumes, and lighting play beautifully off one another. The fight choreography is intense and appears realistic. This CARMEN is full of life, vigor, passion, and powerful performances, gifting Houston audiences with a fantastic closer to a marvelous season of opera.
Running Time: Approximate 3 hours with one intermission.
CARMEN, presented by Houston Grand Opera, runs in the Brown Theater at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue, Houston, 77002 now through May 10, 2014. Performances are April 30 at 7:30 p.m., May 2 at 7:30 p.m., May 4 at 2:00 p.m, May 8 at 7:30 p.m., and May 10 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.houstongrandopera.org or call (713) 228-OPERA (6737).