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Washington National Opera’s ‘Carmen’: High in promise, low on passion

Isabel Leonard as Carmen and Michael Fabiano as Don José in the Washington National Opera's “Carmen.” (Scott Suchman/Kennedy Center)

On Saturday night, the Washington National Opera marked its return to the Kennedy Center Opera House with a “Carmen” that had everything going for it: two bright stars singing the lead roles; a grand staging helmed by the company’s own artistic director; a conductor and orchestra buzzing with optimistic energy after two long years out of this particular pit; and a well-behaved horse.

So what happened?

Despite checking every possible box, this “Carmen” suffered throughout from a pronounced lack of crackle. The D.C. premiere of Francesca Zambello’s production puts all of the pieces of Bizet’s beloved 1875 opera in place, but struggles to charge it with any detectable freshness. A curtain-to-curtain case of low energy repeatedly undermined the wild spirit at the core of “Carmen” — not to mention Carmen.

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Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard made her anticipated debut in the title role on Saturday, though I suspect it may take her a few more travels to Seville to arrive where Carmen actually lives.

Leonard’s vocal performance was searing at times and solid the rest, her “Habanera” a smoldering display of her control and finesse. But as Carmen, she was never quite able to command attention with the gravitational pull we’ve come to associate with the character.

Part of this was Leonard’s physicality onstage, which often scanned too contemporary, her gestures overplayed. I was looking for a wild seductress waving the scarlet muleta of freedom before the charging bull of her own fate, and too often I got Exasperated Disney Heroine.

Another factor was the middling chemistry between Leonard’s Carmen and tenor Michael Fabiano’s Don José. Their momentary love is never supposed to be believable, but on Saturday, it didn’t seem like anything but proximity.

Meanwhile, Fabiano — who sang throughout the evening with force, vigor and a sharpened edge — never quite cut a convincing figure as José. His desperation and menace emerged from act to act in a jarring time-lapse, and his chronically unbalanced chemistry with Leonard overloaded his José with discomforting pathos. I was looking for a soldier whose integrity and identity are undone by desire and betrayal, and too often I got Moody Manchild.

The iffiness of Leonard and Fabiano’s pairing was only exacerbated by the stylish ease and raw power that their co-stars brought to their roles. Soprano Vanessa Vasquez gave a stunning performance as Micaëla. Her lonely plea for courage (“Je dis que rien m’epouvante”) was one of the evening’s vocal highlights, her voice a bright beam from the stage.

And the show didn’t really begin until bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green made his phenomenal showing as Escamillo. He’s an absolute magnet for the eyes onstage, his powerful voice perfectly suited to the showy toreador and his signature aria. I’m already eager for his return as Orest in Strauss’s “Elektra” this fall, another Zambello production — and one that requires far more va-voom than we got on Saturday.

So what was the cause of the drag? There were a few.

The WNO Orchestra, under an enthusiastic Evan Rogister, was beautifully balanced all night, but also strangely timid — sometimes less audible than the shuffling of dozens of feet onstage. Rogister brought out some lovely nuances in Bizet’s music, a lightness and passion that didn’t quite make it to the stage. There wasn’t much heat in the music until after intermission, much too late.

Tanya McCallin’s set resembled a warehoused Richard Serra sculpture, a rusty iron arc looming over a Seville articulated by softly textured and richly detailed costumes (also by McCallin). The two instantly felt at odds. What, beyond the suggestion of a tobacco factory, lay beyond the hermetic seal of this set? (Also, why did smoke pour through the doors like the fumes from a witch’s cauldron?)

One got the sense that this sealed-off Seville would serve as a laboratory where something could be done to the story, or where one of its facets could be magnified or examined in detail. Instead, a sad, beige-ish monochrome prevailed, contributing to the muddle of an oft-overcrowded staging. Even Carmen’s red corset struggled to pop, color-wise. Where was the crimson of her rose?

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Each act found a way to introduce visual treats that aspired to symbolism. A vibrant orange tree sprouted in the town center. (The tenacity of beauty, maybe?) A beautiful white horse was trotted on and offstage a couple of times. (The taming of the wild spirit, perhaps?) A paso (or procession float) of the Virgin Mary was dollied in and wheeled back out. (Your guess is as good as mine.)

Ultimately, these spectacles landed as showpieces, decor meant to spruce up the place, yet registering like an overblown theme party. (Leonard’s attempt at playing castanets, which was about as seductive as a typing lesson, didn’t help.) Meanwhile, the pacing of the show was beset with awkward silences and visible seams between scenes.

For a story about the passion of the heart and the stakes of freedom — personal, political, artistic — there wasn’t much about this “Carmen” that felt very free. If anything, it seemed to confirm that we are finally, officially back to normal — which, as Carmen might tell you, just doesn’t feel like enough.

Carmen runs at the Kennedy Center Opera House through May 28. Visit kennedy-center.org for tickets and information.

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