Stripped-Down 'Carmen' Cloaked With Fine Singing

By Ronni Reich
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 30, 2007

The appeal of Bizet's "Carmen" depends not just on its ever-popular arias and seductive dances but also on visual inclusion into the world of the doomed bohemian chanteuse. Thursday night at Filene Center, in the Wolf Trap Opera Company's concert performance of "Carmen" with the National Symphony Orchestra, the full spectacle was missed. There were, however, some fine performances.

With the orchestra onstage and the chorus relegated to risers behind them, black binders dutifully raised, some energy was inevitably sapped from the production. The bustling streets of Seville had to be imagined, as did the tawdry atmosphere of Lillas Pastia's tavern. Director Louisa Daughtrey made the most of the principals' narrow space in front of the orchestra. The lack of dancers and scenery was compensated by vital contributions from the NSO, Wolf Trap Opera Chorus and World Children's Choir. Conductor Stephen Lord avoided the unobtrusive character that opera orchestras can have and imbued Bizet's score with symphonic importance.

Bizet carefully delineates characters with lyrical melodies for corporal Don José and country girl Micaëla, machismo song for bullfighter Escamillo and Spanish inflections for Carmen. Still, in the absence of traditional costumes and staging, characterization was largely left up to the singers.

There was no crowd of women from which Carmen could emerge. With mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in the role, however, one had no doubt that the Gypsy would stand out in any company. Her intense, raw sensuality -- no coyness from this Carmen -- and otherworldly, powerful singing were exceptional. A shaky "Habanera" attested to a still incomplete recovery from vocal problems, but some full, color-drenched high notes were promising.

The concert format, which eliminates the expense of protracted staging, and technical and dress rehearsals, allowed Wolf Trap Opera Company alumni Graves and tenor Simon O'Neill, as Don José, to join the current crop of young artists for the performance. The contrast between the two veterans and the rest of the singers was striking. O'Neill, like Graves, has a voice of undeniable impact when he's at his best. In an opera world that constantly laments a dearth of large voices, his thick, squillo sound is a rare thrill. His singing, however, was physically labored and his Don José vague.

The young artists were flawless. Technical proficiency, poise and pure, lovely voices were the hallmarks of Erin Morley's Frasquita, Sasha Cooke's Mercedes, Beau Gibson's Remendado, Liam Moran's Zuniga and James J. Kee's Morales. As Dancaïro, Liam Bonner's bravado transcended his small role. Museop Kim brought a sumptuous baritone to Escamillo's "Toreador Song."

Yet, in spite of the obvious collective talent, only one of the young artists gave a truly unforgettable performance. Rebekah Camm inhabited the role of Micaëla, bringing depth to the often bland ingenue. With a sizable, crystalline soprano, she maintained sweetness and fragility until her final climactic note, where evidence of a significant new voice in opera was unmistakable.

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