The music-lover unhappy with the news that Eckart Preu, music director of the Spokane Symphony since 2004, would be leaving the orchestra after the 2018-19 season, would have been unlikely to find any comfort in attending Friday’s performance of Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Fox, the newest collaboration between the orchestra and Opera Coeur D’Alene.
Had Preu’s conducting on that evening only been dull, detached and routine, it would have been easier to look forward to his departure. But no; there he was again, breathing new life and vitality into Bizet’s familiar masterpiece, drawing bright colors from his orchestra, and sensitively underpinning and enriching the work of the chorus and an excellent group of soloists.
Despite the opera’s title, the moral focus of “Carmen” is on the character of Don Jose. Having been raised in the provinces by a pious Catholic mother, he becomes engaged to Michaela (an equally pious young Catholic woman), joins the army as a corporal, and is sent to the big city of Seville, where he succumbs to the raw sexuality and libertinism of the decidedly not-Catholic gypsy cigarette-girl, Carmen.
Over the course of the opera, his infatuation turns to obsession and finally depravity, culminating in his murder of Carmen in a public square in Seville.
That this production successfully met the challenges posed by the sprawling plot and profusion of musical ideas was due in great measure to the performance by Sandra Piques Eddy in the title role. From her opening line, sung before we could see her onstage, it was plain where much of the evening’s dramatic voltage would come from.
Her warm, evenly produced mezzo-soprano displays that rare element of individual color and vibrancy that distinguishes the star soloist from the capable trouper. Add to that her considerable beauty and riveting dramatic presence, and you get what we witnessed this weekend: an ideal Carmen.
She entered, wreathed in impudence, and we listened as she wove together kittenish sexuality and darker self-knowledge in the famous Habanera: “If you love me, I will not love you. But, if I do love you …watch out.” More impressive and more significant was the vocal and dramatic technique she employed in allowing Carmen to grow from a self-indulgent coquette into a fierce defender of feminine autonomy.
Carmen’s moral opposite, Micaela, was sung by soprano Jennifer Welch Babidge, who provided one of the evening’s surprises. Her aria in Act 3, “Je dis que rien m’epouvante” (“I say that nothing can frighten me”), which ordinarily garners polite applause, nearly brought the house down and won Babidge a raucous ovation at the curtain.
The reason was simply the perfection of her singing, which displayed every virtue of phrasing, diction and color one looks for in a vocalist. It was an inspiring example of great singing supplying more than can be found in the text alone.
The principal male singers of the evening did not perform at the same uniform level of excellence. Our Don Jose, Dinyar Vania, took some time – two acts, to be exact – to find both his voice and his character. It is fine for a pianist or a violinist to wear a vacant, abstract expression while concentrating on a phrase, but not a singer, whom audiences expect to show signs of the emotions he is singing about.
It was not until the second half of Act III that we saw Vania demonstrate the same emotional nuance and specificity that his Carmen had displayed from her opening notes. Likewise, his singing, which was accurate but not beautiful in the famous “Flower Song” of Act I, exhibited greater pliancy and grace in the last two acts.
Much the same could be said for baritone Matt Hanscom, who took the part of Escamillo, the bullfighter. Appearing to be little more than a silly fop during his self-appreciative “Song of the Toreador” in Act I, Hanscom seemed gradually to settle into the part, assuming more of the implacable masculine arrogance that draws Carmen away from Don Jose and into Escamillo’s orbit.
His big opening number included too many approximate pitches and too little legato, coming off more as bluster than confident self-assurance.
In his important scenes with Carmen in the brigands’ lair of Act III, and again in Act IV, Hanscom’s tone was much better supported, and his French diction more precise, which allowed us to appreciate better the natural beauty of his voice, which is considerable.
This production of “Carmen” was also distinguished by the depth of its bench, if I may call it that. That is, secondary roles, often referred to as “comprimario” roles, were taken by artists who were decidedly not second class.
Most notable were Carmen’s flighty friends Frasquita (Dawn Marie Wolski) and Mercedes (Hannah Penn). Wolski has given us unforgettable renditions of principal roles in productions of Opera Coeur D’Alene, and is now the company’s general director. Penn seized one’s attention at once with the immediacy of her dramatic presence and continued to enliven every scene in which she appeared.
The combination of precision and relaxation with which both singers navigated the very difficult music given them by Bizet in Acts II and III was evidence, no doubt, of many hours of preparation and years of dedication to their art.
“Carmen” has remained among the most popular operas of history not only because of the great roles it contains, but also because of the brilliance of Bizet’s writing for orchestra. This weekend’s performances were “semi-staged.”
That is, the Spokane Symphony occupied the center of the stage, surrounded by the action of the opera. While this arrangement presented special challenges to the singers, it allowed the audience to appreciate Bizet’s masterful balance of vocal and instrumental writing.
It also allowed us to watch Preu as he molded phrases and balanced dynamic levels to maintain the transparency needed to hear every strand of Bizet’s counterpoint. Winds play an important role in Bizet’s orchestra, so we again had reason to be thankful for the presence of Bruce Bodden, flute, Keith Thomas, oboe, and Chip Wilson, clarinet.
The beauty of the wind playing, especially in the Intermezzo and prelude to Act III and the prelude to Act IV, cast the scene more vividly than any stage set is capable of doing.
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