The curtain went up on the Music Center Opera’s new production of Bizet’s “Carmen,” which began its five-performance run on Wednesday night. There, on the empty stage, stood the Carmen, a figure in whom beauty and menace were equally merged. Since Bizet’s opera actually doesn’t bring the Carmen on until some 25 minutes of scene-setting music has gone by, you could guess right off that you were in for one of those new-fangled conceptual productions, with the composer’s instructions tossed out the window and some smart director’s ideas substituted. But this “Carmen” isn’t all that bad; it belongs, in fact, among the opera company’s more successful escapades: not perfect, mind you, but close. It offers the company’s resident superstar in one of his best roles. It offers, in the title role, an exciting new young singer whose career has zoomed into orbit only in the last year. It offers a handsome, massive scenic production and a director who knows how to use it. It looks good and, for the most part, sounds good. Denyce Graves is the new Carmen, replacing the scheduled Agnes Baltsa whose mother is seriously ill. Graves is 27. Two years ago she was working the switchboard at the Washington Opera; since then she has made a specialty of being in the right place when scheduled Carmens have dropped out — in San Francisco, Vienna, and now here. She is impressively gifted: a big, bright mezzo-soprano voice, a gorgeous figure with face to match. This is the authentic look and sound of a Carmen. She has some distance still to cover, however. At Wednesday’s performance she sang beautifully most of the time, but she also let the pitch droop at crucial times and also lost coordination with conductor Randall Behr. She also displayed some bad stage manners, especially in the matter of avoiding eye contact with other singers and performing, instead, straight out to the audience. If I had been Placido Domingo during their final duet, I might have considered using a real dagger. Domingo was wonderful. That animal quality that gets into his voice at moments of high passion is, once again, the right sound for a Don José. On Wednesday it was powerful enough to cancel out his customary wooden stage manner; sound stood in for sight. Neither Angelique Burzinski’s Micaela (hard-voiced and tremulous) nor Michael Devlin’s Escamillo (strained at both ends of his range) were quite up to this level, but neither were distinctly bad. The production comes here from London’s Royal Opera. It is a vast piece of Spanish pseudo-stone work designed by Gerardo Vera. Franca Squarciapino’s costumes place the action around 1870, the time of the opera itself. Nuria Espert’s direction surrounds the central action with a swirl of people-props, including a large children’s contingent marvelously used. The version used is not the most up-to-date; it’s the old standard edition, with sung recitatives composed by an inferior hand after Bizet’s death, replacing the original spoken dialog. It’s an unfortunate choice, perhaps, in these enlightened times. But at least the usually lethargic Randall Behr seemed this once, on the production’s opening night, to have found the inner resources to create, from his podium, a reasonable likeness of this most grandiose grand opera. Chalk it up, then, as one of the Music Center Opera’s better offerings. It’s about time. LINE
Thursday night’s Philharmonic concert belonged to Dawn Upshaw. Five years ago the slender, smiling young Chicagoan made her local debut singing the ten-or-so notes allotted to the soprano in Mahler’s Second Symphony; a year later she had the eight-minute solo in the Brahms Requiem. This time she came as a soloist in her own right, acclaimed as one of the brightest fixtures in the operatic firmament, an artist whose every note breathes enchantment. This time — the concert is repeated this afternoon — she came with Samuel Barber’s exquisite, nostalgia-drenched setting of James Agee’s “Knoxville, Summer of 1915” and two Mozart concert arias, exceptionally rich and complex pieces. (She has recorded the “Knoxville,” on Nonesuch; it was everybody’s favorite vocal record a year ago.) With warm-hearted, pliant support from the orchestra under David Zinman, she filled the hall with that true, splender, beautifully airy voice of hers, further illuminated by her impeccable command of diction, and her manner of phrasing that makes everything she sings sound spontaneous and radiant. If these words suggest that Dawn Upshaw, in the brief orbit of her career so far, has ripened into a perfect musical artist, they are well chosen. Line
Apropos Samuel Barber: the haunting “Knoxville” piece from 1947, along with the even earlier First Symphony that was also on Zinman’s program, are the work of a poetic artist, robustly imaginative and totally in command of a musical language that managed to be both conservative and original. But Barber was soon to go into a sad decline. How sad, you can measure from his 1966 opera “Antony and Cleopatra,” written to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, a tired spinning-forth of exhausted formulas. The opera persists, on the strength of its famous origin and its composer’s stature. A recent production from the Chicago Lyric Opera, directed by Elijah Moshinsky in a version much edited and otherwise revised, circulated earlier this season on PBS. It was rejected by KCET, but it shows up tomorrow night on the Huntington Beach PBS outlet KOCE (Channel 50). Catherine Malfitano and Richard Cowan sing the title roles; Richard Buckley conducts. They do not quite rescue the opera from its deserved oblivion, but they come as close as the music allows.

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