French opera continues to be a curiously elusive genre on our musical stages. Whether it is the difficulty of the sung, French language, a scarcity of singers to do it justice, or a general decline in its popularity, it seems to have taken a subsidiary position to Italian, German, and even Eastern European forms---much to the dismay of Francophiles and true, opera buffs. With its sumptuous production of Massenet’s Thais a few seasons back, Boston Lyric Opera distinguished itself as our sole bastion of French opera. For its season-opener, the company chose the grand-daddy, or should we say, the big mama of them all--- Bizet’s Carmen.
Historically, Carmen, along with Aida and Boheme, has constituted the "A-B-C" of the world’s most popular and frequently performed operas. Yet it has been conspicuously absent from the repertoire in Boston. The last major revival was decades ago, when the soon-to-retire Regine Crespin essayed the role under Sarah Caldwell’s direction. So, Bizet’s dark, fatal love story was an ideal choice to initiate BLO’s new season. For musicological interest, the company opted to present the original version of the opera, which included spoken dialogue that more fully elaborates the plot, and excludes such numbers as the children’s chorus in Act I, and the famed Act 2 Gypsy Song. And to give the event further dazzle, the company snagged Boston Pops Music Director Keith Lockhart to conduct the work. The results were, for the most part, quite positive.
A curiously religious slant
The production took a curiously religious slant on the opera, with characters gesticulating, and making the sign of the cross before images of the Madonna. John Conklin’s set, the least successful production element, featured a massive flat suspended over the stage, which, for no particular reason, changed its angle of perspective in each act. Painted on it was a large religious fresco, featuring an enthroned Christ and religious scenes. It was meant to look distressed and crumbling with age, but the missing portions precisely formed the silhouette of an elaborately coiffed standard poodle, in pink no less. The fresco hovered over a few raised platforms, and spray-painted polyurethane boulders. Fortunately, the visuals were salvaged by Gabriel Berry’s funky, creative costumes, and Thomas Hase’s attractive lighting. The blocking was masterfully worked out, and the stage action was never too frenetic.
Rather than in the public square in front of the bull ring, the final act was set in a bedroom, in which Carmen (Dana Beth Miller) and Escamillo (Daniel Mobbs) emerge from a large brass bed at center-stage. This worked for the prelude, in which Carmen dressed her toreador for the upcoming bullfight; but the irony of Carmen’s murder by Don Jose (John Bellemer) was compromised by the intimate setting in which it was enacted.
Musically, BLO’s "Carmen" was consistently satisfying. The solo singing and acting, though not electrifying, were solid throughout. The minor roles were well-handled, and the choral singing was also of a high level. The orchestra responded ably to the direction of its illustrious guest conductor. The elaborate flute and oboe solos were beautifully realized. Lockhart’s tempi were unusually relaxed in moments like the Act 1 Habanera and the duet between Don Jose and Micaela (Hanan Alattar), while the orchestral interludes, act finales, and the popular Toreador Song were taut and exciting. Though Lockhart has performed only Puccini with the BLO in recent years, his excursion into the French repertoire was an impressive one.
Hardly, the Carmen of a lifetime, BLO’s new interpretation is sure to entertain. There are several upcoming performances, from November 8-17. For ticket information about this show, or next year’s presentations of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, Mozart’s Idomeneo, and Britten’s Turn of the Screw, visit the Boston Lyric Opera website.