Wednesday, November 11, 2009

As we sat down to the new Boston Lyric Opera production of Bizet's Carmen, my partner whispered jokingly, "She's ba-a-ack!"

But had she ever really gone away? We just saw the Ballet do her up right only two weeks ago, and the last few seasons have seen Carmen in various shapes take bows at the A.R.T., the Boston Common, and beyond. The BLO chose as their teaser for this production the phrase, "Too hot to live!" but really, it's obvious that Carmen is just too hot to die.

Of course due to the opera's ubiquity, every version needs a new twist, and the BLO chose an intriguing one: this Carmen came stripped of familiar recitatives (appended by another composer, Ernest Guiraud, but by now part of the traditional score), and re-appointed with dialogue from its premiere staging at the Opéra Comique. The feathers of the purists were therefore definitely ruffled, even though of course their argument was perforce complicated, as this edition was actually much closer to the original than the "standard" version. Still, I have to admit some of the music sacrificed was worthy, no question. And the BLO's choices were no doubt all about marketing; there was, after all, little sense that this version was intended as a template for future productions. This was merely a fresh twist on a standard.

But would all marketing came to such a happy end! Most purists would I think have to admit that despite its gaps, this is the best Carmen Boston has seen in years. The singing is often sublime, particularly from Dana Beth Miller's Carmen and Daniel Mobbs's Escamillo, and the staging, though intermittent in its power, is at its best truly intense. Word has it that remaining performances are nearly sold out, and no wonder.

Which doesn't mean quite everything works. By and large, the streamlining didn't bother me (although the folks at the Musical Intelligencer may have a point about the dramatically truncated "Card Trio" scene). I did feel John Conklin's set - a chunk of Byzantine mural floating over a desolate stretch of gravel - was a bit clunky, both as object and metaphor, and didn't really serve the dramatic action until the finale, when it loured over Carmen's bed threateningly. And to be honest, some of director Nicholas Muni's flourishes struck me as curious (Zuniga died in a particularly nasty way, and Carmen wound up strangled rather than stabbed - with a ghostly Micaela looking on!). Meanwhile many of the opera's traditional, large-scale pageants have been cut back or eliminated - but this did at least keep the focus effectively on Carmen and her lovers, which I think paid off in its own claustrophobic way (the opening of the final act, usually a crowd scene and dance, was here restricted simply to Carmen's bedroom, yet proved unexpectedly effective).

At any rate, Carmen and her cohorts in love and crime were compelling enough to make you forget all about the opera's lost spectacle. Dana Beth Miller is blessed with a memorably rich mezzo, suffused with a smokily tragic allure that's all but perfect for the role. Her acting was a bit exaggerated, and perhaps lacked the lower end of nihilism that makes a Carmen truly great - she was all sultry cynicism instead, which hardly explains her own near-acquiescence with her own murder. But in her physical scrapes, Miller found a sense of desperate savagery that was inherently gripping. (Indeed, the moments of conflict in this production recalled to me how rarely we see anything like life-or-death action on our dramatic stages, which prefer irony and analysis to the raw edge of tragedy.) Miller's glowing vocals were actually bested, however, by Daniel Mobbs (right), who brought thrilling power and resonance to Escamillo, the confident toreador who wins Carmen's heart; my only issue with Mobbs was that he, too, lacked any sense of the darker edge of Escamillo's obsession. Still, Mobbs and Miller are both the genuine article; BLO has a history of featuring vocalists before they become stars, and these two are definitely headed for the operatic firmament.

Luckily, given the occasional theatrical lapses of these two leads, tenor John Bellemer brought dramatic feeling in spades to his portrayal of Don José, the soldier obsessed with Carmen, too. Alas, he wasn't quite in the same league as Miller and Mobbs when it came to vocal power, although his tenor was flexible and appealing. As usual in BLO productions, the chorus was in fine shape, and there were luminous vocal performances from Hanan Alattar as Micaela and Meredith Hansen as the gypsy Frasquita, while Darren K. Stokes offered a boldly-sung Zuniga. Keith Lockhart conducted with passion from the pit. Not to be missed (if you can still get a ticket).

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