Of the “ABCs” of opera (Aida, Bohème, and Carmen), Bizet’s masterpiece is the one that has made the transition to pop culture ubiquity. Surely even the most oblivious of listeners are able to whistle along to the “Habanera” and “Toreador Song”. Furthermore, the melodramatic story of exoticism, lust and rejection is one of the most popular of operatic tales. What better way to sell opening night of an opera season than bringing in a much-hyped production of Bizet’s classic work? The sold-out audience was enthusiastic, but while this was a safe Carmen, it rarely sizzled.

Patricia Bardon as Carmen © Robert Millard
Patricia Bardon as Carmen
© Robert Millard

Emilio Sagi’s set colors were flat, perhaps in an attempt to convey the arid Andalusian climate, but then why was there vast blackness above them? The look was similar to the maligned Zeffirelli Carmen for the Met, but without the detail. Costumes were quite plain, even for the celebrity Escamillo of the second act and his new lover Carmen in the finale. While it wasn’t offensive, it was rather dull. Visually, this production failed to ignite the imagination of a far-off land and time, full of adventure.

Sagi’s production was one of predictability. The vast majority of action was as anyone familiar with the story would have prescribed it and where he did innovate it was often unenlightening at best or puzzling at worst. (A cross-dressing Lillas Pastia shoots Zuniga at the end of the second act as the chorus swells.) Director Trevore Ross’ character interaction was cautious and, just as frustrating, solo arias were blocked with little creativity. Carmen’s “Habanera” was staid; Escamillo’s “Toreador Song” was academic. The use of the clunky accompanied recits certainly didn’t help. The lack of initial chemistry between the gypsy and Don José was apparent. The fatal lust seemed forced thanks to both the staging and the two stars who, at times, seemed to be overly cautious.

Patricia Bardon made for a spiteful, spirited Carmen, but one whose magnetism was questionable. Her characterization was fierce but to the point of bitterness. Her second-act dance for a famished Don José was unimaginative, particularly since the castanets were heard only from the pit. Compounded by a voice that tended to swoop and broaden towards the top of the range and lose substance towards the bottom, Bardon was a passable if un-alluring Carmen.

Her co-star Brandon Jovanovich sang with flashes of brilliance but some inconsistency. He seemed dramatically uneasy in the first act. But he sang a quite satisfactory “Flower Song” capped off by an effortless piano B flat. His vocalism was thrilling above the staff, although a little pressed through the passaggio. It is a voice that is unique, slightly white in color, but undoubtedly powerful. As José morphed into melodramatic jealousy, Jovanovich seemed much more physically absorbed in his role and dramatically involved.

Bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo was easily the most distinguished voice in the cast. He sang Escamillo’s aria with refreshing consistency and powerful sonority. Dramatically he was suave although given very little to do. The most unfortunate choice of the evening was the elimination of a substantial portion of the third act duet with Don José – certainly a missed opportunity dramatically and musically. Pretty Yende sang Micaëla with musicality and a pristine if slight soprano sound. Her “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” was assured and lyrical. She was confident on stage, despite having little chemistry with Jovanovich.

Supporting parts included fine singing from Hae Ji Chang and Cassandra Zoé Velasco as Frasquita and Mercédès. Bass Valentin Anikin sang Zuniga with an uncomfortably swallowed sound. Daniel Armstrong as Moralès was a bit shaky. The two bandits, El Remendado and El Dancaïre, were finely rehearsed and sung by Keith Jameson and Museop Kim.

From the pit, Plácido Domingo led a blisteringly fast overture, but tempos were unsteady and ensemble between stage and pit often haphazard initially. His touches on the score were apparent and often appropriate, but the overall arc of the acts, particularly the first, tended to lose momentum. Still, the LA Opera Orchestra played with enthusiasm and attention to their maestro. The LA Opera Chorus sang with fine diction and strong sound, occasionally bordering on oversinging, and were a dramatic asset. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sang quite musically and were fine actors.

Nuria Castejón’s choreography was one of the most invigorating contributions of the evening. The fiery dancing at the beginning of Act II was captivating, authentic, and sensual. The dancers’ return at the beginning of the final act was a welcome one. Of the proceedings on stage Saturday evening, the dancing (save Carmen’s solo turn) was the most refreshing, lending much-needed sexual tension to the performance, but it was just a small contribution overall.

Thanks to its tunes, Bizet’s masterpiece will always be a draw. Saturday night’s performance was clearly sold out and the run will undoubtedly be quite popular. But without the raw passions at the core of its characters, many will find this Carmen lacking. Acceptable? Perhaps, but what’s the fun in that?

**111