Opera Philadelphia brings Bizet’s crowd-pleasing classic to the Academy of Music. Inspired by by the resetting of their 2015 production of La Traviata, director Paul Curran and set/costume designer Gary McCann team up again to bring CARMEN to a nearer past, set in a beautiful Havana-esque 1950’s.
The first act is full of color and excitement, the stage filled with soldiers, worker women, nuns and children. The orchestra, conducted by Yves Abel, sounds fantastic, and feels ready to break out of the gates. We are introduced to the young soldier Don José (Evan LeRoy Johnson) his innocent fiancee Micaëla (Kirsten MacKinnon) and Carmen, (Daniela Mack) the desirous gypsy who comes between them. Carmen gets in trouble but escapes, while Don José is caught helping her and lands in jail. Obviously, this relationship will not end well.
Mack is an appropriately gorgeous Carmen, but lacks a strong low range and has that operatic affect that sounds swallowed. Her acting and movements are similarly constrained, but this seems to be a problem in direction more than acting. There are quite a few moments of transition where the singers seem to be waiting for the orchestration to end with nothing to do in between. There is also little chemistry between the various love interests. Carmen rarely looks at her amour du jour when singing of her love for him. Sometimes there is a sexy move (José goes down on her, Frasquita and Mercédès take off their underwear), but it does not work as a substitute for emotional intensity.
Act II opens with the “gypsy dance”, staged to look like a Ronettes style performance. Unfortunately, the setting leaves little room for the song to become a “whirlwind”, “passionate, wild, fired with excitement”. Luckily, the famous toreador, Escamillo (Adrian Timpau), soon enters on a vintage motorcycle and Elvises his way through one of opera’s most popular tunes. Timpau plays the role with a sense a humor that allows him to float above the drama of the plebeians in true celebrity fashion.
When the crowd leaves, Carmen and a few fellow gypsies discuss some criminal activity. The piece the five of them sing together, Nous avons en tête une affaire, highlights the talent of the ensemble, one of the strengths of the production. It’s rapid and switches tempo and voices quickly, but the singers and orchestra move and blend perfectly as one.
In opera, some voices seem to be built from the ground up; years of training and practice create a precise and powerful instrument. Other voices seem to come from elsewhere, the years of training simply releasing a current which flows through the singer. Evan LeRoy Johnson is gifted with the latter. Don José’s aria, La fleur que tu m’avais jetée showcases his vocal and dramatic range, from tender to passionate, with a hint of menace on his final “je t’aime”. He is able to move through the stage more freely than the rest of the cast, who stand rooted to one spot while they sing.
Kirsten MacKinnon as the innocent Micaëla cannot escape the stagnant stage direction, but is a shining light in the dim and labored third act. Her prayer aria is as light and graceful as she, and her lovely white and blue dress provides a stark contrast to Carmen’s vampiric leather jacket. Impressively, both MacKinnon and Johnson are products of the Curtis Institute, a testament to the strength of the vocal arts in Philadelphia.
Act IV brings the lovers to violent ends. The lurid colors of the first act return, Carmen enters in a fabulous red Spanish gown with her new amour, Escamillo, in an unfortunately clashing pink “traje de luces”. The peasants, soldiers and children gather in excitement for the bullfight. Carmen leaves the crowd to face a heavily dishevelled Don José. She refuses to leave with him, so he kills her and himself. Without having built the passionate intensity of the relationship in previous scenes, their deaths don’t register strongly, but the crowd comes for the Bizet’s music. In this regard, the strong cast and fantastic orchestra of Opera Philadelphia do not disappoint.
[Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music] April 27-May 6, 2018; operaphila.org