- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2007

A sultry summer thunderstorm rolled over Wolf Trap’s Filene Center on Thursday evening, drenching the throng of lawn-seat ticket holders outside the auditorium. They, and the nearly full house inside, were there to catch a one-time-only concert performance of Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” headlined by an even sultrier mezzo-soprano, Denyce Graves, the definitive Carmen of our time.

Those able to brave the elements were well rewarded with a sizzling-hot performance of this ever-popular work.

Miss Graves, along with her fellow lead, tenor Simon O’Neill as the hapless Don Jose, are both alumni of the Wolf Trap Opera’s renowned program, which showcases the considerable talents of up-and-coming young singers, often helping them initiate significant professional careers. They were joined by an enthusiastic cast of current Wolf Trap Opera Company singers along with the Wolf Trap Opera Chorus, the World Children’s Choir and the National Symphony Orchestra, which played extraordinarily well under the baton of Stephen Lord.

Although opera has been making a strong comeback in recent years, most operatic works register only dimly in the consciousness of American audiences. Not so with “Carmen.” Even people who have never seen an opera somehow become acquainted with many of its arias and set pieces, including the “Habanera,” the Toreador song and the stirring, percussive bullfighting music that starts and concludes the work.

Like most operas, “Carmen,” first performed in 1875, is built on a relatively simple story — in this case, a tale by Prosper Merimee concerning the fortunes and misfortunes of a Gypsy girl with a scandalously outsize appetite for sex and adventure. Carmen encourages and then discards lovers seemingly by the dozen, with her latest being a soldier, Don Jose.

He abandons his mother, his fiancee and the military to follow her into a life of crime as a smuggler. His reward? Getting dumped when Carmen falls for a hunky toreador named Escamillo. For Carmen, however, this latest tryst is a bad career move as the distraught Don Jose plots his revenge.

Miss Graves, a District native who last appeared here as Carmen with the Washington National Opera in the mid-1990s, has, if anything, perfected her approach to the character. Even without the aid of props and a set, she was able to summon the audience into Carmen’s world Thursday night, breathing passion and complexity into one of opera’s most vibrant characters.

Her acting and mannerisms were superb, right down to her sometimes coquettish, sometimes haughty facial expressions. At times she sang barely above a whisper; at others, she soared passionately above the large orchestra. Her lusciously plummy mezzo voice and superb French diction, along with her intense audience rapport, helped make this an evening to write home about.

Happily, Miss Graves‘ performance was further boosted by a cast that obviously loved working with her and the NSO. Tenor O’Neill turned in a surprisingly robust performance as Don Jose, the opera’s hapless hero, often regarded by opera aficionados as a wimpy guy unworthy of Carmen’s attention. Not so here. Mr. O’Neill endowed his character with great complexity and gave him more authority with his substantial and well-supported instrument.

As Escamillo, baritone Museop Kim radiated alpha-male authority and fearlessness with his booming, yet surprisingly complex voice. As the abandoned Micaela, sweet-voiced soprano Rebekah Camm endowed her character with a measured goodness that helped counterbalance Carmen’s robust amorality.

In the smaller supporting roles, the rest of the cast excelled as well, including bass Liam Moran as Zuniga, baritone James J. Kee as Morales, soprano Erin Morley as Frasquita, mezzo Sasha Cooke as Mercedes, baritone Liam Bonner as Dancairo and tenor Beau Gibson as Remendado.

The only notable slip-up Thursday evening was caused not by the cast of singers and musicians, but by the Filene Center’s sound system — which, for a brief moment in the first half of the evening, generated enough bass feedback to obliterate any of nature’s rolling thunder outside.

Otherwise, this Wolf Trap Opera-NSO concert performance of “Carmen” was as good as summer opera can get.

****

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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