Patricia Bardon and Brandon Jovanovich in LA Opera’s “Carmen”
Photo by Robert Millard
Music by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Directed by Trevore Ross
Conducted by Placido Domingo
With Patricia Bardon, Brandon Jovanovich, Pretty Yende, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
LA Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Through Oct. 6, 2013
Call me a philistine. Go ahead; I can take it. But here’s the thing: I like my opera big and bold. Passions should sizzle and heroes should make my heart skip a beat. The diva should be worth a man’s flinging his life away. Definitely add a chorus that can do more than just stand around. All of this, of course, should be supported by a score that makes a heart sing on its own, played by an orchestra descended from the heavens but spiced from below. That is my recipe for a sublime evening at the opera.
So, how does LA Opera’s current production of “Carmen” stand up to these philistine standards? All in all? I would say, pretty well. “Carmen,” with its familiar, easily accessible themes and melodies, is a crowd pleaser for good reason. Conductor Placido Domingo’s perfectly paced tempi, executed seemingly effortlessly by the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, adds all the Spanish spirit Bizet could ever have wished for. The familiar music throbs but does not compete with the voices.
Basically I am saying, “what’s not to like?” Well, aficionados might say the Emilio Sagi production, from Madrid’s Teatro Real, is unoriginal. Director Trevore Ross does closely follow the original production. But, hey, why reinvent the wheel, that opening square in Seville is somewhere that would be great to visit; and those mountains in Act III? Weren’t they imposing with the youthful cast scrambling up and down the rocks? There is a reason this production has been repeated three times in Los Angeles, and the house was sold out. But I do wish the gypsies were not quite so well scrubbed. Nitpick aside, opening a new season with a crowd pleaser like this can entice non-fans to give opera a try.
What this version of “Carmen” may have lacked in originality is made up for by the quality of the cast. Patricia Bardon’s Carmen is a tough seductress with a commanding mezzo that grew stronger as the evening progressed. She is tough, she is sexy, she is aggressive and she can move. Of course, she works her magic as she knows, and we know, she will. Whatever the Lolas or Carmens of this world want the Lolas or Carmens get … until they throw their trophy away. That is just the way it is, my sweet Michaelas (Pretty Yende) out there. You need to add some spice. Beautiful and teasing beats sweet, demure and self-effacing in any horse race. But, as the role demands, Yende keeps her passions securely buried under church lady wraps as she pleads with Don Jose (a dashing Brandon Jovanovich) in Act I. She paves the way for Carmen to weave her spell over the hapless soldier. Michaela’s Act III solo, where she begs Don Jose to leave the gypsies and return to his dying mother, gives us the chance to experience what a powerful and passionate stage presence the young South African soprano can be when not tied to the apron strings of the Michaela of Act I.
Don Jose is a goner when Carmen sees him in the crowd outside the cigarette factory and sets her mark on him. Except for a few minor lapses early on, Jovanovich is a strong tenor, equal to Bardon’s superbly full voice. Our Don Jose is one lovesick puppy, prepared to throw away everything just to follow the seductress. And then there is victim number two, Escamillo (bass baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo), the matador, a man with his own, personal, musical theme. What, you say, D’Arcangelo is not really a matador pulled onto the opera stage to add color and credibility to the production? Really. But he has the body, the style, the moves … OK, you are absolutely right, he has the powerful bass baritone to make the role his own. He is a not-to-be-missed, full-service Escamillo. Maybe you will fall for him, too.
Then there is Frasquita, the young gypsy devotee of tarot cards. Coloratura Hae Ji Chang’s tones are the clarion call of childish optimism to contrast with the dark tones of the fatalistic Carmen in the final act. Chin is an emerging artist to be watched. She is a delight.
If you are the kind of opera fan who keeps competitive count of the number of times (and where) you have seen “The Ring” cycle, this LA Opera production may be too conventional for your tastes. If on, on the other hand, my confession of philistine tastes did not turn you off, this is a marvelous evening’s entertainment, with wonderful voices, lovely sets, a pleasure to see and hear.