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Ensemble

A Sizzling Rendition

'Carmen' from Phoenix Opera
impresses MARIA NOCKIN

 

Carmen by Georges Bizet (1838-1875) is one of the world's most often performed operas. Its tunes are heard not only in the theater but also as part of commercials and background music for radio, television and film. Most people recognize the melody of the 'Toreador Song' even if they do not know it's origin. Thus, it is surprising that the opera did not have an unmitigated success when it was premièred at the Paris Opéra-Comique on 3 March 1875. On that day Bizet had been awarded the Legion d'Honneur, and the city had great expectations for the new opera. The performance was a truly gala occasion attended by famous composers and authors including: Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet, Leo Delibes, Jacques Offenbach, Alphonse Daudet and Alexandre Dumas (fils).

Soldiers and Vendors in Act I of Phoenix Opera's production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro
Soldiers and Vendors in Act I of Phoenix Opera's production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro

Acts I and II gained modest applause, but except for Micaela's Aria, the second half of the work was poorly received. The nineteenth century Opèra-Comique audience was generally made up of bourgeois families, few of whom were ready to accept a heroine who smoked cigarettes and lived a scandalous life style. Because librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy knew their audience could be narrow minded, they invented the character of Micaela in hopes of warding off problems, but even though the opening night audience appreciated Carmen's rival, they were unhappy with the gypsy and her lovers. Some critics disliked the characters of Carmen and Don José while others thought the composer had made the orchestra too prominent.

The Children's Chorus in the Phoenix Opera production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro
The Children's Chorus in the Phoenix Opera production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro

Nevertheless, the production ran for forty-eight performances. After the thirtieth show the composer passed away, but not until he had arranged for performances in Vienna. During the next two years Carmen was also seen in Brussels, Antwerp and Budapest. By 1878 it began to circle the globe. It was then staged in London, Stockholm, New York City, St Petersburg, Dublin and Philadelphia and its popularity began to increase exponentially. Currently, it is the fourth most performed opera in the United States.

Carmen, Viktoria Visin, flirts with a soldier in the Phoenix Opera production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro
Carmen, Viktoria Visin, flirts with a soldier in the Phoenix Opera production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro

On Sunday afternoon 8 November 2009, Phoenix Opera presented Carmen at the Orpheum Theatre [Phoenix, Arizona, USA] in an imaginative traditional performance directed by Joseph Bascetta. Here was a realistic gypsy, sometimes seductive, sometimes purely selfish. She was the perfect love object for the obsessive, fatally flawed Don José, a man who could not deal with rejection. John Lehmeyer's costumes were all in light shades for Act I but his designs for the following scenes were brighter, especially when Paul A Black's intriguing lighting hit the dancers performing Flamenco in Pastia's Tavern. Choreographer Liliana de Leon and her graceful, exotic troupe of talented dancers gave this Carmen the ambiance of French Grand Opera with their graceful movements.

José is held fast by Le Remendado, Isaac Hurtado, and Le Dancaire, Beau Heckman in the Phoenix Opera production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro
José is held fast by Le Remendado, Isaac Hurtado, and Le Dancaire, Beau Heckman in the Phoenix Opera production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro

Hungarian mezzo-soprano Viktoria Vizin was a fascinating Carmen, moody and willful, sexy and tempestuous, with a sizeable voice. She had the right sound for the Card Song as well as for the music of the first and second acts. Her chocolate cream alto was a delicious contrast to the honey of Katie Davidson's Mercedes and the silver of Anna-Lisa Hackett's Frasquita. Operalia prize-winner Arnold Rutkowski took a few minutes to warm up in the first act, but after that he proved he has the ability to contend for top honors as a lyric tenor.

Mercedes warns Carmen about José in the Phoenix Opera production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro
Mercedes warns Carmen about José in the Phoenix Opera production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro

The surprise of the afternoon was the fine Escamillo of New Mexico baritone Carlos Archuleta. Having already sung leading roles with the Minnesota, Cincinnatti and Washington National Operas, he has robust secure tones and the charisma that this role demands. Jennifer Nagy was a fittingly reticent Micaela who sang her aria with limpid tones. Baritone Christopher Holmes was a worthy Morales who could attract the ladies with his sexy uniform, while the Zuniga, Earl Hazell, suffered from a poorly fitted jacket and a difficulty finding the exact pitch for some less important notes.

José, Arnold Rutkowski, pleads with Carmen, Viktoria Visin in the Phoenix Opera production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro
José, Arnold Rutkowski, pleads with Carmen, Viktoria Visin in the Phoenix Opera production of Bizet's 'Carmen'. Photo © 2009 Victor Massaro

As always, Conductor and Chorus Master John Massaro handled his forces with great expertise. The choristers moved in small groups and sang the most difficult harmonies commendably. His orchestra played the crisp tempi he had chosen with a light and well balanced approach that relished every color of this magnificent work. The result was a sizzling rendition of Bizet's masterpiece.

Copyright © 14 November 2009 Maria Nockin,
Arizona USA

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GEORGES BIZET

CARMEN

PHOENIX

ARIZONA

FRANCE

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

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Classical Music Programme Notes for concerts and recordings, by Malcolm Miller