With its brawling, cigarette-smoking women and the on-stage murder of its hot-tempered heroine, Bizet’s “Carmen” pushed the envelope for Parisian audiences when it premiered in 1875. And in a way, Wolf Trap Opera pushed a couple of envelopes of its own Friday at the Filene Center with an outdoors, one-night-only performance of Bizet’s classic that touted 21st-century technology in a production that sounded better than it looked.
Some of the “Carmen” buzz centered on high-tech bells and whistles. Well-known technology writer David Pogue took the stage as a non-singing extra wearing Google Glass, recording snippets of the action for intermission upload. With new supertitle technology, patrons sitting on the right-side lawn could access the opera’s translated text via their smartphone or tablet. (The left side was reserved for a “device-free” experience.) It was an admirable, low-risk experiment, aimed perhaps at attracting Washington’s younger tech-savvy crowd.
Too bad, then, that a little of the magic, or Bizet’s original boldness, didn’t rub off on the visual aspects of the production, unevenly directed by Tara Faircloth. This “Carmen” ended up a disheartening mix of misguided acting and generally fine singing from a well-balanced cast of fresh, young voices.
Part of what stirred up the 19th-century Parisians was the fearless sexuality of the title character. Carmen smokes, fights, runs with a pack of smugglers and brings men to their knees with her come-hither “Habanera.” In that famous aria, she sings, “Love is a rebellious bird that nobody can tame.”
Yet there was little to call rebellious in mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani’s Carmen. Yes, she threw glasses of water and hiked up her skirt, but she never felt dangerous. The gestures were delivered as stock, pulled from a drawer; accompanied by too much mugging, they felt detached from the music and from Lahyani’s considerable vocal talents. Her rich, smoky, aubergine-colored voice is nearly perfect for the role, and she sounded best when the “acting” was kept to a minimum, as in the third-act card scene when she foretells her death.
If Lahyani’s acting was overcooked, tenor Kevin Ray’s was underdone. As Carmen’s jilted lover Don José, he often simply stood around or paced, looking a little lost. There was no visible dramatic arc to the character. So when he turned from blank slate to Carmen’s attacker in Act 2, it’s an implausible surprise. Fortunately, Ray let his formidable voice do the heavy lifting. After a shaky start, he displayed a robust, pressurized instrument, built for Wagner (eventually) with the luster of steel. In voice alone, which continued to bloom through the night, he conveyed José as a tightly wound creature, occasionally with an audible teardrop, ready to blow. A small crack in the final scene notwithstanding, it was an engaging vocal outing.
Captivating sounds came in smaller roles too, chiefly the Zuniga of Ryan Speedo Green. Once a juvenile delinquent, Green fell for opera at age 14 after seeing a Met production of “Carmen.” Now his career is rising. As the cocky lieutenant, Green used his cavernous bass voice with style and intelligence. Joo Won Kang portrayed a vocally solid Cpl. Moralés, while Norman Garrett, stylishly attired (in costumes by Rooth Varland), made for an imposing if perhaps underpowered bullfighter Escamillo. (Because of the Filene Center’s necessary amplification, it’s difficult to determine how some singers might project naturally.) The voices of Virginie Verrez and Mireille Asselin, playing Carmen’s buddies Mercédès and Frasquita, blended beautifully as they shuffled cards in Act 3. The smugglers Remendado and Dancaïre, often played for laughs (too many here), were finely sung by Tobias Greenhalgh and Robert Watson. Sadly, Melinda Whittington’s uncharitably wide vibrato and murky diction cast an unappealing light on the country girl Micaëla.
Musical forces for “Carmen” were impressive. Grant Gershon conducted a tidy performance, as the National Symphony Orchestra plus the Washington Chorus and a 38-voice children’s choir were situated onstage, behind the action. That didn’t leave much room for sets. Low-cut stone walls and wooden boxes were enhanced by a 60-foot screen with serviceable projections (cigarette factory, tavern, mountains) by S. Katy Tucker, whose previous work (the Met’s “Prince Igor”) has been more expressive. Perhaps she too was limited by a production of “Carmen” that needed a little more of Bizet’s original, innovative Carmen.
Huizenga is a freelance writer.