Friday, February 19, 2016

opera review: Carmen

I spent three hours last night watching a dysfunctional relationship. At least the music was good.

Yes, it was Carmen by G. Bizet, an opera about a woman who at one point claims to be using love potions, which seems to be the only explanation as to why every man she meets falls madly in love with her, including the one last previously seen ordering her to be taken off to jail.

One of the reasons I don't watch much opera is that my mind insists on reading it as drama with music in it, rather than music tout court, and the drama is not usually very good drama by my standards and the music often doesn't quite fit in. I think the main reasons I got a bit impatient and weary by the last act were that the drama was so sketchy that I had developed no reason to care about these characters, and that the main point of sitting there at all was to wait for Carmen to open her mouth and sing something really pretty, which she does mostly in the first act. The tunes are so good because, I understand, Bizet stole them all from a Spanish songbook.

This is only the second time I'd seen Carmen. The first was some 40 years ago, and my mother, who took me, said it wasn't a good performance. (I had hardly the knowledge to judge at the time.) So when San Jose Opera announced this production, I thought it was about time to try it again, the same way I tried Carl Ruggles again a few years ago to see if he'd gotten any better during the interim (he hadn't). This production has gotten very good reviews, and I can at least testify that Lisa Chavez made a strong and sultry Carmen. Don José is a truly pathetic character, but Kirk Dougherty did what he could with him. All three of the lesser baritone/bass roles had stronger voices than Matthew Hanscom as Escamillo, the lead baritone, and why should that be?

I'd be willing to let less than 40 years pass before seeing Carmen again, but in the meantime I'll stick to the orchestral suites.

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