All the elements were in place for a memorable performance of Bizet’s “Carmen” – a conductor who himself was a distinguished protagonist of the opera’s lead tenor role, an international cast of major stars, and one of the world’s great productions of this most popular of French operas.
The Los Angeles Opera used these incomparable advantages to produce a theatrically effective and musically pleasing opening night of their 2013-14 season.
[Below: Conductor Placido Domingo; resized image of a promotional photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Emilio Sagi’s production
This Emilio Sagi production, originally designed for Madrid’s Teatro Real, previously had been presented by the Los Angeles Opera in 2004 and 2008. It remains one of the world’s most striking productions for this perennial favoriate opera, with full-stage sets, created by Gerardo Trotti, towering over each of the first three acts.
The first act places the army’s headquarters at stage left, at the base of a winding urban thoroughfare of city buildings that disappears in the distant rear of the stage. Beyond what the audience can see is the cigarette factory and the barracks from and to which the platoons of soldiers will march. Townspeople and children will drift in and out of the central plaza as the activities of the soldiers, the cigarette girls, and especially Carmen, attract or lose their attention.
The second act at Lillas Pasta’s infamous tavern displays a massive interior space with an upper balcony and abundant table space for flamenco dancers to join in the festivities. The third act is massively mountainous.
The fourth act, using a somewhat smaller place, still has ample room for boisterous activity, yet more Spanish dancing, the processions of various classes of bullfighters, and the powerful denouement.
Patricia Bardon’s Carmen
Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, who had performed onstage with Domingo in 2009 in an L. A. Opera performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, was vocally effective in the title role.
[Below: Carmen (Patricia Bardon, left) expresses her love for Don Jose (Brandon Jovanovich, right) edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Having reported on Bardon’s performances in operas by Handel [Domingo’s Towering “Tamerlano” Bajazet: Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2009] and Rossini [Stormy Weather, But Strong Performances from Pisaroni, Crocetto, Bardon, Sledge in Rossini’s “Maometto II” – Santa Fe Opera, August 2, 2012] in which she took on the musico roles of, respectively, the conflicted Prince Andronico and the manly General Calbo, she assayed the role of one of opera’s most seductive females.
[Below: Carmen (Patricia Bardon, center left) tries to entice Don Jose (Brandon Jovanovich, background, right) not to return to his barracks; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Brandon Jovanovich’s Don Jose
The sex object that first fascinates Bardon’s Carmen is Montana-born tenor Brandon Jovanovich’s Don Jose, at least until his after hours visit (second act) to Lillas Pastias’ tavern.
Jose was just released from prison and just busted from the rank of corporal. Midway into Carmen’s attempted seduction, to her annoyance, Jose begins to give consideration to repairing his tattered reputation in the Spanish army, rather than pursuing an absent-without-official-leave tryst with Carmen.
Don Jose dutifully decides to return to his barracks, when he crosses paths with a superior officer who insults him. A surge of machismo rage changes Jose’s life forever, and assures that the remainder of his breve vida will be as a fugitive criminal.
The transformation of Don Jose from mama’s boy to murderer in a short space of time so effectively portrayed in Bizet’s music is a meaty assignment for a great dramatic tenor.
Many Californians, myself included, will remember the 29 year old Domingo in his early performances at the San Francisco Opera in this role. It is a world class event to be able to experience a performance in which Domingo is the conductor for Jovanovich, who now must be regarded, both as singer and actor, as one of the contemporary opera world’s ranking Don Joses.
[Below: the reluctant deserter Don Jose (Brandon Jovanovich) in a despondent mood in the smuggler's hideaway; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
One always expects a great performance from Jovanovich, with Don Jose unquestionably one of his signature roles, but this particular performance was masterful, demonstrating Jovanovich’s expressive and powerful vocal delivery, and his centered acting, from which Don Jose’s every agaonizing emotion can be discerned.
Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s Escamillo
When the Los Angeles Opera needs swagger, apparently they look to Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, whom they have cast as a Byronic bad boy Guglielmo in Sir Nicholas Hytner’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” [Stylish Production, Fine Cast for “Cosi fan Tutte” – Los Angeles Opera, September 18, 2011] and as Mozart’s outrageous anti-hero [Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Roguish Libertine, James Conlon’s Impressive Conducting, in Insightful “Don Giovanni” – Los Angeles Opera, September 22, 2012].
[Below: Ildebrando d'Arcangelo was the Escamillo; edited image, based on an Uwe Arena photograph for DG.]
But Mozart’s bad boys don’t have the reputation for physical danger (or show the prowess in knife-fighting) that is the essence of bullfighter Escamillo.
Here d’Arcangelo’s good looks and rewarding delivery of the classic (and tricky to sing) Toreador song were among the evening’s many pleasures.
[Below: Escamillo (Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, left), wearing the lead bullfighter's suit of lights, expresses his love for Carmen (Patricia Bardon, right); editeed image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Pretty Yende’s Micaela
Domingo, through his Operalia vocal competitions and other enterprises is constantly engaged in an international search for operatic talent. Winning an important Domingo-inspired competition often results in a contract at the Los Angeles Opera.
Such is the case with South African soprano Pretty Yende, a multiple winner in a recent competition, who proved to be a winsome and affecting Micaela.
[Below: Micaela (Pretty Yende) has located the hiding place of the smugglers; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The Carmen “Quintet”
There are four characters who personify the underworld activities of Carmen and the gypsies that might be thought of as a unit, almost like Ping, Pang and Pong in Puccini’s “Turandot”.
Carmen’s partners in smuggling and other crimes are Frasquita (South Korean soprano Hae Ji Chang) and Mercedes (Mexican mezzo Cassandra Zoe Velasco), who provide a joyful counterpoint to Carmen’s depression in the third act card scene in which Carmen becomes (rightly) convinced that she will immediately precede Don Jose in death.
[Below: Carmen (Patricia Bardon, left), with her fellow gypsies Frasquita (Hae Ji Chang, center) and Mercedes (Casandra Zoe Velasco, right); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The male members of their team are El Remendado (South Carolina tenor Keith Jameson) and El Duncairo (South Korean baritone Museop Kim). Carmen and the four others sing the charmingly staged act two quintet.
Others in the cast included Russian basso Valentin Anikin as Zuniga and Texas baritone Daniel Armstrong as Morales.
Jesus del Pozo created the costumes. The original choreography was by Nuria Castejon, with the debuting Briseyda Zarate Fernandez listed as Associate Choreographer for the revival. Trevore Ross, in a company debut, was the revival’s stage director
There are so many virtues of the production, one can only list a few in each review. I am impressed by the elaborate rituals created for the first act changing of the guard, the crowd sequences in the first and fourth acts, and the fascinating choreography in the second and fourth acts.
I suspect that the production’s creative team could write a primer on the meaning of each costume’s adornments and the rituals in the bullfighter processions.
I recommend this production, cast, creative team and performances without reservation.
[For my previous review of this production, see: Impressive Debuts in L. A. Opera “Carmen” – December 6, 2008. For my review of Brian Jovanovich's Don Jose, see: Krasteva, Jovanovich Sizzle in Chicago “Carmen” – Lyric Opera, March 15, 2011.]