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New London - The Connecticut Lyric Opera celebrated its 10th anniversary Saturday with a reprise of its very first opera, Bizet's "Carmen," in a performance at the Garde Arts Center that was musically compelling and full of drama, despite some serious flaws.
The CLO has grown from its first opera in the sanctuary of a New London church to become a statewide company, with this "Carmen" presented in downtown theaters in New Britain, Waterbury, Middletown and New London. That alone is a singular, praiseworthy accomplishment.
Saturday's production featured a well-sung and cattily dismissive characterization in the title role by Polish mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Kaminska, and a riveting evening of musical drama by tenor Daniel Juárez as Carmen's victim Don José - as strong a performance as any CLO principal to date. But a key cast weakness and some very odd score editing in the final scene put a bit of a damper on the heat.
The music of "Carmen" is infectious, so much so that several instrumental suites were crafted from its score after Bizet's death. But it is the ambiguity of the characters that keeps this opera vital on stage.
Is Carmen a free and proud woman, exercising her own personal revolution against oppression? Or, is she a heartless exploiter of men who crosses boundaries of decency and gets what she deserves? Is Don José a good man driven to violence to recapture the honor stolen by a seductress who lured him to betray his vows? Or is he a momma's boy who lashes out to kill Carmen out of adolescent jealousy and narcissism?
Saturday, Juárez made a strong case for Don José as the opera's central character, a man complex and strong, yet vulnerable. His growing vocal ardor, a smooth and powerful tenor well-suited to this French material, and stagecraft through the final two acts as he realizes Carmen has tossed him aside after convincing him to desert his army post, were character development writ large. From the Act 2 aria "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" through the impassioned duets that followed to the finale, Juárez was the evening's emotional epicenter.
From her first entrance, dressed in red, sashaying across the stage with her hand on her hip, Kaminska left little doubt about Carmen's game, and through a languid and beguiling opening habanera, "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle," she made her case for her freedom to love whom she chooses. The seductive seguidilla and "Chanson Bohème" that define Carmen's man-killer psyche are also some of the most well-known arias in the repertoire, and Kaminska made them fresh, with a warm and rich timbre. Her character turned petulant, bored even, as the opera progressed, titling the emotional balance to Juárez.
But in the role of the bullfighter Escamillo, baritone Maksim Ivanov woefully missed the mark. From his initial entrance, in unfortunate profile with his pot belly hanging over the red sash at his hips, he scarcely could have cut a less dashing figure for the charismatic toreador. His famous signature song, "Votre toast, je peux vous le render," was pocked with moments of vocal distress and emergency phrasing, and his voice was unfocused throughout the evening.
As Micaëla, the good girl from back home, soprano Jurate Švedaite was lovely in her character's sincere and unadorned arias, particularly in the emotional Act 3 "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante." And excellent supporting performances were sung by soprano Heather O'Connor as Carmen's companion Frasquita, tenor Christopher Lucier as the smuggler Remendado, and bass Ryan Foley as the captain of the guard Zuniga.
As audiences have come to expect, Artistic Director Adrian Sylveen led the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra in a well-paced, concert-quality performance, the fine playing in the winds in particular displayed in the long entr'actes. But Sylveen stole much of the drama from the high intensity finale through his peculiar choice of cutting the choruses, that counterpoint of gaiety and excitement inside the bullfighting arena that adds high relief to the dread of Carmen's coming murder. The pacing and dramatic effect suffered greatly.
The children's chorus (which was onstage in the final act but was not allowed to sing) delighted the crowd in the first act, and the costuming and sets reflected a growing maturity by the CLO.