There have been performances of "Carmen" that could more accurately have been named "Don Jose'" or "Escamillo," just as there have been "Rigolettos" that should have been called "Gilda and the Duke." The Washington Opera's production, which opened the company's season in very satisfying style on Saturday night, lives up splendidly to the established title.
Mezzo-soprano Martha Senn, who had only two weeks to prepare herself for the role, dominates the production. Only one other personality makes more of an impression in this "Carmen," and it would be confusing to change the name of Bizet's opera to "Fru hbeck."
The women were the stars Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The audience -- at least those in it who were tuned in to the grapevine of orchestral and choral musicians -- came prepared for something special in Senn's American operatic debut. There was a sense of hushed expectancy as the music built slowly toward her first entrance, like the feeling in a ballpark as a new pitcher, just called up from the minor leagues, walks slowly to the mound.
Senn satisfied that expectation spectacularly, but hers was not the only spectacular performance. Singing Micaela -- a usually colorless role in an opera that pulses with vivid color -- soprano Elizabeth Knighton was brilliant, flawless. For once, the simple, timid little country girl, who does nothing but remind the tenor of his duties to his mother, became a living, vital personality -- the symbolic counterbalance to Carmen that the opera's structure requires.
Knighton achieved this partly through vocal ability: ringing high notes, a clarity of diction almost never heard from sopranos, superb phrasing and a carefully calculated sense of the word values. But she is also a superb actress, able to find exactly the right pace and gesture for every nuance of the role.
Her Act III aria "Je dis que rien ne m'e'pouvante," was applauded as enthusiastically as anything that happened all evening -- and rightly so. With anyone less compelling than Senn in the title role, a movement might be launched to change the opera's name to "Micaela."
Still, it was "Carmen" -- unmistakably from the opening words of her introduction to the habanera and decisively by the time she spat out "C'est certain" and launched into the aria itself.
Senn's entire first act, which contains most of Carmen's big moments, was dazzling -- the voice eloquent, accurate, beautifully rich in tone and used with superb agility. She is as beautiful visually as she is vocally, and she used this asset magnificently, tormenting a dozen men of the chorus with flirtatious gestures before focusing on poor Jose' as her victim, sealing his doom by tossing him a flower and running off.
In Act I, this Carmen seems poised between girlhood and womanhood, between kitten and tigress, testing her powers and not afraid to take risks as part of the test. By the final act, when her torero has decked her out in fine clothing, she has acquired the airs of a grande dame, but in Act I she is pure gypsy -- spitting and kicking, defying authority, using everything she has to get what she wants.
A climactic moment comes when she is about to sing the seguedilla, alone with Jose', sitting on the curb of a fountain, determined to seduce him and hampered by the fact that her hands are tied behind her back. In a striking coup de the'a tre, Senn raises one knee, grasps her skirt in her teeth and raises it so that her legs and a bit of thigh can help her to bargain her way to freedom. The gesture is both superbly comic and a deft bit of characterization, and it raised the temperature in the Opera House by at least 10 degrees Saturday night.
If she had a weak point in the evening's performance, it was the Gypsy Song opening Act II, a very busy scene with dancing and abundant stage action that had not come quite into focus on opening night. Senn's voice, particularly in the upper register, seemed weaker here than anywhere else in the opera, and a few syllables slipped into inaudibility.
Elsewhere in Acts II and III, she showed herself an excellent ensemble performer -- aided by top-notch casting for all four of her partners in the quintet and much other business of those acts: Kerry McCarthy and Janice Felty as Frasquita and Mercedes; Allan Glassman and David Arlen Bankston as Dancairo and Remendado.
In terms of meeting the challenges of their roles, Glassman and Bankston may be the best male casting in the opera -- along with Jeffrey Wells, who sings the role of Zuniga. Not that they are better singers than Dennis Bailey (Jose') or J. Patrick Raftery (Escamillo), but that on opening night they had their assignments more under control.
Raftery is making his first appearance in the role of the bullfighter after two very successful seasons here in "The Barber of Seville," and he should become a fine Escamillo with further seasoning. The performance is not rough; if anything, it is too polished and could use a bit of roughening. This toreador is more of an artist than an athlete; there is something almost Mozartean in the vocal style and perhaps an echo of the aristocratic bearing of conductor Fru hbeck in his stage presence. Raftery could be a credible Escamillo, but he is not yet so.
Bailey (who is already booked for an engagement at Bayreuth) has a good voice but only rudimentary acting abilities -- except by the special standards one must apply to most tenors (an endangered species that probably needs protection from predatory critics). His tone is usually exquisite, his diction good enough to betray how bad his French accent is -- and these are, on the whole, positive signs. But he must learn more about stage presence if his talent is to reach its fullest development.
After the final curtain, the applause was generous -- as this excellent production deserved. But it did not become a general standing ovation until conductor Rafael Fru hbeck de Burgos came on stage, indicating a high level of perception in the opening-night audience. Senn was in the spotlight and used it superbly, but this is really Fru hbeck's "Carmen."
As he does regularly with the National Symphony, Fru hbeck has induced the Opera House Orchestra to play at a standard it seldom reaches. He is an ideal partner for singers, and the problems of balance that are almost universal on opening nights, particularly in the first act, were absent on this occasion. Sometimes he was impressive by his reticence, as in the accompaniment to the habanera, which he reduced to the merest thread of sound; elsewhere, he exulted in the vivid orchestration of the score, and the orchestra exulted with him.
His skill as a choral conductor was equally evident, but here he must share credit with stage director Michael Kahn, who deployed his choral forces most effectively for visual and dramatic impact. The children's chorus, in particular, was used with uncommon skill in the first and last acts. For once the ragamuffins hanging around the plazas of Seville really looked as though they belonged there and had interesting things to do -- things that echoed the opera's action and themes, such as a splendid mock-bullfight in the last act.
This "Carmen" seems to promise another vintage season from the Washington Opera. Tonight's "Falstaff" should tell us more about that promise.