Review: CARMEN: A Triumphant Crown to a Decade of Impressive Opera

By: Mar. 08, 2017

We enter the beautiful auditorium and are struck by a dark structure of rough beams--a balcony across the stage with stairs at either side. Plain gray panels surround the brooding set. It's as ominous as an ancient gallows. At Winter Opera we've become used to beautiful classical or romantic sets--castles, gardens and gorgeous sky-scapes. Here, for Carmen, designer Scott Loebl gives us something strikingly different in tone. It's more dramatic and it's perfectly suited to the tragedy at the heart of Carmen.

This production completes the company's tenth season, and it's a crowning glory.

The orchestra, under the direction of Darwin Aquino, gives the finest performance I've heard in any of the many productions I've seen at Winter Opera. With the opening phrases of the overture it simply bursts out of the gate. It snatches us up and carries us away like a robber bridegroom whisking his love up onto his galloping steed. The tempo is almost alarming. Such energy! Such excitement! Such precision!

As the overture proceeds we are treated to a simple but dramatic introduction to the characters and their relationships-all in pools of light amid the darkness of the stage. No singing, just movement, with stark lights from above. This is what used to be called a "dumb show"-a common feature of plays in the 16th century, used to foreshadow the story soon to be seen. (In Hamlet the players' presentation to Claudius is a memorable example.) Here in Carmen the movement is insightfully designed to employ the music meaningfully. The gleam of that white light on Carmen's pale bosom quickens every male pulse and instantly convinces us of this woman's gifts as a seductress.

And we are utterly and truly seduced by the vocal gifts of this Carmen. Benedetta Orsi has a quite breathtakingly beautiful voice, full and rich, with such easily accessed resources of power. The tightly but naturally controlled vibrato, the subtle textured timbre-like "tooth" on fine paper, the occasional little gliss or portamento into a pitch. These all beautifully support the strongly carnal nature of this woman. And she can act! She flirts and plays and menaces. She gives us a simply perfect "Habanera". All in all a glorious job! And she looks every inch a gypsy.

Miss Orsi is surrounded by other fine performances:

Jorge Pita Carreras, as Don José, displays a strong, velvety tenor voice. It's most expressive and flows seamlessly across his entire range. His "Flower Song" in Act 2, in which he finally professes his love for Carmen is superb.

The bullfighter, Escamillo, is sung by Neil Nelson, who's becoming quite a favorite to us here in St. Louis. He is so full of energy! In his "Toreador Song" he brings the bull-fight to wonderfully exciting life.

Micaëla, José's sweetheart from home, is sung by Jacqueline Venable Simmons, whose sweet soprano and angelic blonde appearance are perfect for this girl who is the very image of purity and innocence.

Robert McNichols, another St. Louis favorite, does lovely work in the basso role of Lt. Zuniga.

Aleksander Dragoyevic sets the tone for beautiful voices at the very top of the show. As Corporal Moralès he leads the opening number with clarity and excellent diction.

Jason Mallory and Ian José Ramirez give us a fine pair of smugglers-vocally strong and full of mischief and ardor.

Ellen Hinkle and Kara Cornell portray Carmen's flirtatious best buddies at the cigarette factory. Miss Cornell, with lovely strong features, makes Mercédès quite commanding. And as for Frasquita? The very name sounds like a light sparkling wine, and Miss Hinkle sparkles indeed with fresh vivacity. Both ladies brighten the evening with lovely voices and exciting dance.

I was impressed with the chorus work and the carefully controlled dynamics displayed by both men's and women's choruses. The children's chorus is a delight.

Costumes by JC Krajicek and lighting by Sean Savoie are in these artists' long tradition of excellence. There is one startling moment when, as José stabs his dagger into Carmen, the entire background-which had all evening been a neutral gray-instantly flashes into pure blood-red!

Stage director Matthew Haney manages his large cast very well, for the most part inventing movement and business that lends meaning to the music. There are a few occasions, though, where there are idle moments as singers seem to merely await their musical cue. Movement within the crowd scenes could use more detailed attention and when the children play at soldiering I would have liked a crisper high-stepping tin-soldier quality.

Frequently Mr. Haney handles arias in what I call the "highwayman style". I.e., he plunks his singers down-stage facing the audience and orders them to "Stand and deliver!" This allows us to enjoy the full power and every subtlety of these grand voices but there are times when it's simply not appropriate. The final confrontation between José and Carmen, for instance, must in fact be a con-frontation. That very word implies a certain face-to-faceness. And Micaëla, for her lovely aria in Act 3, is stuck motionless in the far left corner of the balcony. Miss Simmons has not the largest voice in the cast and that position is less than acoustically supporting. Moreover the lack of movement makes the aria seem longer than it is. Micaëla is, after all, seeking José; Mightn't she really seek him a little?

But such considerations are a director's quibbles. Overall this production of Carmen is a sheer triumph. Congratulations Winter Opera!