There was a lot to like about "Carmen" as the New York City Opera presented it on Wednesday night at Wolf Trap, where the popular opera will be repeated tonight.
It is a truism to repeat that Georges Bizet's masterpiece is one of the world's great operas, a jewel never to be taken for granted. Beverly Sills' company is casting the opera very strongly in every role, both major and minor, with singers who understand the deeper currents as well as the many subtleties. Seeing and hearing the handsomely balanced cast with Jose Varona's appropriately textured and colored sets and costumes provides a notable framework for the familiar score.
There was, however, a notable drawback on Wednesday night in the ferociously fast pace adopted most of the time by conductor Charles Wendelken-Wilson. From the opening of the overture through almost every single set piece in the score, whether aria or ensemble, he close a tempo on the rapid side and then proceeded to maintain it with an inflexible rigidity that robbed one beautiful passage after another of any chance of making its fullest effect. That the outstanding exception to this approach came in Micaela's aria, which was exquisitely sung by Diana Soviero, only seems to prove how stubbornly wrong Wilson was much of the rest of the time.
With the appealing seasoned artists singing under his direction, it was distressing to see him frequently leave them with their mouths open, unable to shape phrases as they obviously intended to. Fortunately for Charles Long, singing Escamillo, the "Toreador Song" adapts itself easily to this kind of regime and Long scored a stunning triumph when singing it.
Joy Davidson, in the title role, is a sumptuous, seductive Carmen who achieves much of her total impact by suggestion rather than forceful insistence. She looks and moves and sounds as great Carmens have, adding fine touches of her own along the way. Only now and then was the subtlety slightly exaggerated so that it was not always possible to be sure just how she got from one critical note to another.
A tenor new to Washington, Ricardo Calleo, a native of New York State, became increasingly impressive as Don Jose. Something of a look-alike for Louis Jourdan, he has a bright lyric tenor that is all upfront, but he handles it well and commands a welcome kind of passion by purely vocal means. He did not calculate the climax of the "Flower" aria quite to his best advantage and the top B-flat was not just where he wanted it. It was a pleasure to watch him shifting moods as he turned from Micaela to Carmen.
Soviero is a lovely singer of a kind that seems rare these days in that she uses silvery soft tones with a generosity that makes for the finest effect. The necessary changes in her manner with Jose in the first and third acts reflected all her deepest feeling for him.
Long's voice is ideal for the toreador, his French a joy, and his bearing exciting. He capped the third-act duel with a frightening leap down a set of rocky steps and came up a champion.
Thomas Jamerson sang an excellent Morales, but John Seabury's French and various mannerisms, perhaps the result of some inept stage direction in the first act, kept his Zuniga from reaching the same level. James Clark, William Ledbetter, Cynthia Aaronson and Nadia Pelle were adequate as the smuggling friends, Clark standing out as El Remendado.
The chorus, which has an exciting, youthful sound this season, did superb singing at every opportunity, once a slightly bumpy opening scene was over. If only they could take those Languorous cigarette scenes at a more leisurely speed! The orchestra played well for the most part, but again it must be said that the exqusite prelude to the third act was rushed.
If Wilson could be persuaded to hear Bizet without riding off like Whirlaway, tonight could be quite special.