The Washington National Opera opened its 60th-anniversary season Saturday night with “Carmen.” Business as usual, you might say. Only it’s not business as usual.
The question of what we want from opera is often invoked in connection with new works, but it’s no less relevant in productions of pieces from the canon. Do we want opera to be adventurous, cutting-edge, making statements about our world? And if we’re not sure we want that, is the alternative familiarity: a work so often performed that each character, each gesture is encrusted with a thick layer of tradition and accepted performance practice? And if that’s not how you want to do “Carmen,” just how do you want to do it?
The Washington National Opera’s production was trying not to ask such questions. Its goal was to present opera that would satisfy the standard opera-loving public, complete with conventions and familiarity and beautiful music. And there’s a place for that in the opera world. Even those of us who want new things remain hooked on this larger-than-life art form, in part, for those larger-than-life experiences the canonical works are able to deliver, when performed by larger-than-life voices, such as that of Clémentine Margaine, Saturday’s Carmen, who started out a little mired in the “sexy gypsy” conventions that dog this part but belted out some powerful sound once the evening was underway.
This season is an ambitious one for WNO: It includes Philip Glass’s “Appomattox,” Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” and then the “Ring” cycle, which is an entity unto itself. So “Carmen” represents the one piece of well-known “operatic” territory to, I’d wager, a good portion of the people who were in attendance Saturday, and who applauded warmly, and not wrongly, when it was done.
Give all due credit to WNO. There is not a lot of artistry to E. Loren Meeker’s production, which has been seen at opera houses in Canada and San Diego, with its big, pretty, abstract-painting-meets-generic-opera-space sets by Michael Yeargan; but at least it gave lip service to freshness by nudging the action in the direction of a 20th-century spot in some archetypally Latin country. And the company did its best to convey the sense of Event by putting in some good voices and a lot of company debuts — including Bryan Hymel, the reigning American tenor du jour in the French repertory, as Don José; Janai Brugger, a sweet-voiced and slightly spunky Micaëla; and members of the current crop of Domingo-Cafritz young artists, including Ariana Wehr as Frasquita and Rexford Tester as El Remendado. (Together with Aleksandra Romano as Mercédes and Christian Bowers as El Dancairo, they made a notably tight quartet.)
Furthermore, conductor Evan Rogister, who made his company debut in “Moby-Dick” two seasons ago, showed he can also do well in the standard repertoire with a generally fluid reading that kept the pace moving along, marred only by significant ensemble issues in a couple of places from the chorus.
The evening didn’t bring any great new insights to the work; it didn’t even try. Margaine’s concept of the central role seemed to derive from Central Casting, and her vocal swoops and slurs in the “Habañera,” sliding her right off pitch at times, made me fear for the evening, but she began delivering more straightforward singing, revealing a fine voice with the requisite duskiness and impressive size, by the end of the first act. Hymel, too, gave a sincere José of no particular dramatic heft but a certain vocal elegance. He avoided the ringing, Italianate interpretation of José in favor of a smoother, slightly whiter sound. I found his performance less compelling than his authoritative Aeneas in San Francisco’s “Les Troyens” in June, but it had undeniable attractions. Kenneth Kellogg, a former member of the Domingo-Cafritz program, was a strong Zuniga. A weak link was Michael Todd Simpson, who was visually adequate but vocally overextended in Escamillo’s Toreador Song, which sounded both too high and too low to be comfortable for him.
There were two innovations — to use the term loosely. One was a new performance edition that Rogister and Meeker created by merging the spoken dialogue of Bizet’s original opéra-comique and the sung recitative with which the work was later kitted out. The result was dialogue that was sometimes sung, sometimes spoken, and considerably shorter and brisker than some editions: For once, “Carmen” didn’t drag. The other was Artistic Director Francesca Zambello’s deft handling of the obligatory singing of the national anthem that opens every season. After welcoming remarks to the audience before the curtain, she brought out this year’s crop of Domingo-Cafritz young artists and had them lead the singing, by way of introduction.
Both of these were effective ways of making something that’s familiar more dynamic and involving for the public. If that doesn’t sound like enough for you, wait for “Appomattox.” But if you are simply someone who wants to see a famous opera for the first time or see “Carmen” for the 15th, you could do a lot worse than go to WNO for one of the remaining shows.
“Carmen” continues through Oct. 3.