Thursday, November 22, 2007

Fatal Attraction

Bizet's Carmen holds a strange fascination for audiences. Having grown up in a gypsy culture, Carmen is a woman who lives for the present, with little regard for remote consequences. Her focus is intense; her attention span short. He flirting arouses men; her caprice confounds them.

Carmen knows how to take care of her own needs first. As a result, she breaks all the rules of love as outlined in traditional literature. If the strength of Carmen's self-will was more apparent than ever in this fall's revival of Bizet's opera, it was because director Paula Williams was able to fine-tune crucial moments in the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production (seen here for the fourth time).

Williams' efforts to concentrate on dramatic shadings triumphed in three particularly critical moments. Don Jose's Act II flower song began with the gypsy's back turned to Don Jose and Carmen positioned in such a way that the audience could see how much she hated the sound of a weak man. The gypsy's card trio in Act III contained a much stronger level of resolve from Carmen juxtaposed to the girlish silliness of Frasquita and Mercedes.

Most importantly, Carmen's death scene marked the first time I've ever seen Carmen stabbed in the vagina as opposed to her chest or abdomen. With the aim of a truly deranged ex-lover, Don Jose plunged his knife into the root of all his evils and gave a cruel and ugly yank upward -- as if determined to eviscerate the source of his sexual frustration. Coming from a male stage director, such a dramatic choice might have been called misogynistic. I admire Williams' willingness to get to the crux of the matter.

This director's insight helped to heighten the dramatic intensity between the principals which is easier said than done. Carmen is a beast of a show which requires a huge cast (including an animated children's chorus), multiple crowd scenes and constant entrances and exits. More intimate moments in the score are often sacrificed to the need for traffic control.

Williams' staging was aided immensely by the conducting of Vyacheslav Sutej who, in his local debut, did an excellent job with the score. Restoring several traditional cuts, Sutej also took the time to let certain musical moments (which are usually trampled to death in the race to stay within union time) breathe a little bit longer.

After one has reviewed the same production of Carmen several times, certain oddities in any performance stand out like a sore thumb. The most blatant mistake in this production remains Thomas Munn's failure to fix the lighting cues for the fight scene in Act III (which make it seem as if someone had accidentally flicked a switch for no good reason). This idea has never worked and should be eliminated.

What was most noticeable in this revival, however, was the quality of the solo performances and how, after 15 years, a different type of American singer has come to dominate the stage. Of the principal artists in this production, Kathleen Kuhlmann (Carmen) is a graduate of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's Center for Young American Artists. The alternate Carmen, Denyce Graves, is a product of the Houston Opera Studio.

Barry McCauley (Don Jose), Patricia Racette (Micaela), Maria Fortuna (Frasquita), Yanyu Guo (Mercedes), Hector Vasquez (Dancairo), John Swenson (Remendado) and Mark Delavan (Morales) are all graduates of the San Francisco Opera's Merola Program.

All of these artists have been molded by a particular style of professional training which stresses a high level of musical integrity as well as the need to communicate the soul of the entire character. Thus, when Maria Fortuna dances, she goes at it with a vengeance. When John Swenson camps, he does so with panache. Patricia Racette was able to transform Micaela into a much more complex character than most lyric sopranos ever bother to do.

While Kathleen Kuhlmann offered a strong portrayal of Bizet's gypsy girl, the most impressive work in this revival came from tenor Barry McCauley as the spurned and homicidal Don Jose (McCauley sang some of his first performances in this role in San Francisco back in the late 1970s, when Spring Opera Theater was performing at the Curran). In the past few years, McCauley has battled some vocal problems which have only recently been corrected. An artist who has always been passionately committed to character (and particularly good at portraying tortured souls), he is now singing with fantastic vocal strength -- and giving a performance that is a sheer joy to watch.

Often, singers emerge from vocal training programs with the intelligence to research a role, the stamina to perform it and the stageworthiness to communicate the character to an audience. During their thirties, however, the constant travel and personal stress which accompany a professional career can take a bitter toll on the voice. McCauley's appearance as Don Jose offered an insight as to what can happen after a singer has ridden out the stormiest part of a career and managed to pull things back into shape. With 15 years of experience singing on international stages, much greater personal maturity and a voice that is now under control, McCauley offers proof positive of the value of operatic training which singers receive from programs like the San Francisco Opera Center.

The complexity of the performances by the American-trained singers in the cast is particularly noticeable when contrasted to the wooden Escamillo of baritone Dimitri Kharitonov, the young Russian from the Bolshoi Opera. Kharitonov was as monochromatic as they come -- perhaps the most boring and lifeless Escamillo I have encountered in 25 years of operagoing. His lack of stage presence and vocal strength offered a shocking foil to the high level of artistry delivered by the Americans surrounding him onstage.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 24, 1991.

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