Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
The New York City Opera opened its two-week run at the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday night with Bizet's - Carmen," a popular and versatile vehicle that was treated with imagination and some unusual characterizations.
Murder at the Opera Comique! Loose women and gypsies on tis proper stage. In the Paris of 1875, this prospect seemed sandalous but enticing. The Opera Comique may have been the more adventurous of the Paris houses, but it took on Bizet's "Carmen" with the utmost reluctance.
Even after a moderately successful first season, its place in the repertoire was not assured, and it was not until long after Bizet's death, after the spoken recitative had been set to music and after the specter of common people and earthy emotion no longer arouse indignation tht it was accepted.
But acceptance means a lot of things. On one level it means that even people who know nothing about opera have heard of "Carmen." It means that its music is used irreverently, often by children (witness the many versions of the "Toreador Song.") But it also means that, over the years, people have come to appreciate its craftsmanship, the artistry of its economical use of material and the sensitive characterizations, the strength of its personalities and the very Frenchness of its mode of discourse.
Tuesday night's was an interesting production of an opera that is more complicated than it is often thought to be, a production that focused on characterizations. Mignon Dunn as Carmen and Robert Hale as Escamillo were two poles of energy in a context of otherwise passive characters. Dunn sang this role, as she has so often, with the perfect combination of grown-up assurance and sensual teasing, while Hale's Escamillo, vibrant as it must be, was lost of fury but little substance.
Ermanno Mouro was an excellent Don Jose, vocally strong and consistent in a role full of contradictions. He is an unheroic hero and it shows in everything he does. And fine singing also was turned in by Glenys Fowles as Micaela. Martha Thigpen and Kathleen Hegierski as Frasquita and her side-kick, Mercedes, and Jerold Siena and Alan Baker as the pair of smugglers.
The sets by Jose Varona look marvelous both empty and full of a well-costumes chorus.
But with all this, the opera got off to a rather sluggish first act Tuesday night.
Conductor Kurt Klippstatter had trouble moving the chorus along at the orchestra's perky pace, and the stagemovement seemed to bog down as the act developed into pointless and static posing.
The chorus sounded not quite warmed to their task and even the orchestra was a little tentative, the fate theme seeming to ask a question instead of sounding a warning.
But with the second act curtain, things seemed to sort themselves out. Dunn, by inclination and design has no trouble dominating a scene at any time, even from a distance, and her interpolation into the "Toreador Song" was brilliantly handled. As Nietzsche commented when he heard "Carmen" for the first time. "To perform this you need a real witch." Mignon Dunn is a real "Carmen."