Saturday, July 30, 2016

Carmen: NYCO woos an audience

Bryant Park, now featuring opera
New York is a city I still think of as home, and not least among the many things I miss about it is its operatic ecosystem. So it was a special pleasure, on my latest visit, to find opera right in my academic backyard. The much-tried NYCO is currently trying out free outdoor opera. The large, diverse, and multigenerational audience that gathered last evening in Bryant Park would seem to confirm the wisdom of the strategy. I was encouraged to see how ready such an audience was to devote part of a summer evening to opera. The offered Carmen turned out to be a much-reduced version of Bizet's big, brutal, beautiful work. In scarcely more than an hour we were through, famous excerpts having been strung together with summarizing narrative. I expect that the next planned park opera, Pagliacci, will be much more successful in offering a taste of opera, since the company will be able to offer the whole work. And of all the scores to put in piano reduction, that of Carmen is surely one of those that must suffer the most from losing its color, its noise, and its vital pacing. I still enjoyed the opportunity to hear more of NYC's singers.

The premise of the adaptation had Lillas Pastia (Jacob Russo) as the narrator, and he made a spirited job of it, though I do not believe for a fraction of a second that Pastia's thriving business, legal and illegal, depended on Carmen's presence. I was also struck by the contrast between Russo's cheerfully gender-inclusive welcome (ad-libbed, I suspect), and the lazy misogyny of the interpretative synopsis offered. These problems are present in many a Carmen synopsis, of course, but there are now at least several decades of interpreting this opera that do better than presenting Don José as Carmen's "hapless victim." This, in a scene featuring an armed, uniformed soldier and the woman who is his prisoner. The power dynamics between José and Carmen, however they are presented, are surely more complex than that. I raise this complaint in part because it took still more interpretative space away from the singers, who had to craft their characters in a Carmen missing its recits, its chorus, and several of its ensembles. The choreography did little to help characterization, with the notable exception of its highlighting the erotics of Frasquita and Mercedes' relationship; the implications of this were perhaps inevitably left unexplored, although it lent unusual irony and darkness to the question "Dites-nous qui nous mariera, dites-nous qui nous trahira..."

The singers were, without exception, game in performing under reduced circumstances. They were also all miked by a fault-prone system, which I thought a shame. Surely Bryant Park -- even with midtown noise -- isn't too large a space for operatic voices. Gustavo Feulien brought panache to the role of Escamillo, and nice attention to text. As Micaela, Daria Somers was a standout. She has a rich soprano, and sang with very sensitive phrasing, making her duet with José credible though abbreviated. She got her full scene in Act III, and gave it with utter, passionate conviction, as well as expressive use of vocal color. This was a Micaela who might give Carmen a run for her money. I'd heard good things about Michael Morrow, who sang Don José, but suspect that he must have been having an off night, or have been badly served by the microphones, or both. His role was also heavily cut (no "Dragons d'Alcalas," for instance,) rendering the very different emotional states of the character across the opera more difficult to make plausible. In this abridged Carmen, Elise Quagliata, in the title role, was given even more of the evening to carry than is usually the case. I was confused by a number of her phrasing choices, but impressed by the range of her mezzo; she seemed easily comfortable at the lower end of the role, which lent a welcome bite to her pronouncements. Her death -- though fated and foretold -- felt much less real than her life.

Ensemble bows: Micaela, Jose, Carmen, Escamillo, Lillas Pastia, Frasquita, and Mercedes

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