November 14-20, 2002
Virtually every opera season includes an example of a repertoire staple produced with some twist or turn on the original concept, in the name of making the material more relevant to contemporary audiences. The question is, always, do the changes help or hinder the original? None of the digressions from tradition that the Opera Company of Philadelphia employs in this new production of Carmen do anything to damage the integrity of Bizet’s conception. Updating the story to Seville during the early days of Franco’s fascist regime does add an undercurrent of menace that matches the sinister themes of the opera. However, Robert Israel’s set, seemingly fraught with symbolism and featuring mounds of rubble such as might result from a bombing raid, comes across as an elaborate distraction at best.
The inclusion of a narrator, portraying one of the gypsies bitterly recounting the tragic tale of the viperous Carmen, works fine. Charles McCloskey carries this role off with vigor. Veteran opera-goers might dismiss this as gimmicky, but Bizet's first performing version of Carmen included extensive spoken dialogue.
Ironically, the boldest element of this production comes from a purely traditional source. Tenor Hugh Smith's portrayal of Don José is convincing and gutsy, and his eloquently husky voice, often uncannily reminiscent of the legendary Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, is memorably expressive. Smith portrays Don José as a painfully naive mama's boy, turned into a blithering idiot by the sexual power of Carmen, and finally, driven to murderous psychosis. All of Don José's big moments in this opera present formidable vocal and dramatic challenges, and Smith approaches them with no little daring. The famous "Flower Song" is rendered with elastic phrasing and a keen sense for the harmonic beauties of this music, and in the pathetic closing scene, Smith's acting flirts dangerously with histrionics but never goes over the top.
The big problem with this Carmen is that it isn't possible to connect the fervor of Don José to the object of his desire. In the title role, Marina Domashenko comes across as perky and cute, rather than voluptuous and dangerous, as the composer surely had in mind. This Russian mezzo-soprano possesses a creamy, smoky voice that consistently sounds a volt or two below the electric sensuality that can turn the male psyche into mush.
The supporting cast, including excellent choruses from both the adult and boy ranks, fleshes out the music in a satisfying way. The fine OCP Orchestra, under guest conductor Jacques Lacombe, is meltingly beautiful in the more lyrical passages, but occasionally displays flaccid ensemble in big moments.