- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

The Washington Opera wraps up its 2001-02 season this month with two spectacular Kennedy Center Opera House productions, Georges Bizet's beloved "Carmen" and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's tragic "Queen of Spades."
"Carmen," which opened Saturday night with Artistic Director Placido Domingo conducting the orchestra, is shot through with more familiar, toe-tapping tunes than possibly any opera in the repertoire. The "Toreador Song," the Habanera, the "Fate" music and the gypsy song that begins the second act remain popular even though a majority of the American public has never seen a live opera.
"Carmen" had a so-so opening in Paris in 1875. It has plenty of color and pageantry, but its music flows and surges with identifiable motifs in the manner of Wagner, who was not popular in Paris at the time. Just as problematic was the frank sexual voraciousness of the opera's liberated heroine. Nonetheless, it was loaded with so much remarkably good stuff that quibbling soon fell by the wayside.
Bizet's masterwork is based on a tale by French writer Prosper Merimee. Carmen causes a riot in the cigarette factory where she works, is saved from arrest by Don Jose, who eventually becomes her lover, joins a crew of crafty smugglers then sets her cap for the toreador Escamillo.

The Washington Opera has revived its colorful 1995 production, which starred Denyce Graves. Comparisons between the two productions are inevitable. The 1995 production exuded more fire than this realization. Miss Graves' slinky Carmen projected a primal carnality that connected on a visceral level.
In the new realization, director Ann-Margret Pettersson gives us a darker vision, a postmodernist test of wills between men and women. Thus, famed soprano Jennifer Larmore, in one of her signature roles, projects a colder, more manipulative Carmen than Miss Graves did. Miss Larmore interprets Carmen as almost a man-hater, whose pile of discarded suitors constitutes a monument to her indomitable will.
Miss Larmore's rich mezzo is clean, accurate and well articulated. Her French diction is also impeccable, particularly in the sinuous Act I Habanera. Her low notes are fully audible no mean feat with such a large orchestra and she can hit the high notes seemingly without effort. Although Miss Larmore could have projected a more passionate Carmen, she did spit plenty of fire and defiance in her final, fatal battle with Don Jose.
Fabio Armiliato is a marvel in a world of barrel-chested tenors in his role of Jose. He is slight of frame, but the clarion voice that erupts at climactic moments is startling in its power and range. Yet he is capable of great tenderness, even when singing pianissimo. He proves to be a fine actor in one of opera's more ungrateful roles, projecting a man who is confused by Carmen's dominance even as he tries to retain his dignity in the face of it.
In the small but important role of Escamillo, the haughty toreador, baritone Kyle Ketelsen is robust and convincing as he muscles out anyone who stands between him and Carmen. His dominant presence makes it easy to see how Don Jose can be so easily pushed into the background.
But perhaps the greatest delight of the evening was Virginia Tola as tenderhearted Micaela, Jose's discarded fiancee. Seemingly a light, girlish soprano, Miss Tola can release a reserve of power on demand. Her signature Act III aria, "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante" ("I say that nothing frightens me") was sensational, as she alternated bravery with fear and crystalline high notes with a midrange of profound conviction.
Maestro Domingo conducted the Washington Opera Orchestra crisply and set a brisk tempo throughout. This restored a good bit of zest that Miss Pettersson's cool direction had sometimes restrained.
Alternating evenings with "Carmen" is the company's production of the brilliant "Queen of Spades." Perhaps the most notable thing about this fine production is the reappearance of Mr. Domingo, this time onstage as the doomed hero Hermann, whose passion for luck at the gaming table causes multiple tragedies.
Hermann is one of the least heroic and most depressing characters in the opera firmament, but Mr. Domingo brings to him a manic gentleness that generates a touching sympathy for this troubled soldier as he staggers toward his tragic rendezvous with fate. This is acting and singing at its finest, and we are all privileged each year to have Mr. Domingo in Washington.
Mr. Domingo is aided by the able baton of music director Heinz Fricke, who coaxes a rich, symphonic sound from the Washington Opera Orchestra. It doesn't get much better than this, except that the production also features soprano Galina Gorchakova, who sings the role of Lisa with a real empathy and a lush, well-supported earthiness. Also notable is baritone Sergei Leiferkus as Tomsky. His vigorous Act III aria sets the stage for the final showdown at the card table.
Not to be ignored are fine performances by baritone Rodney Gilfry, who underlines the role of Prince Yeletsky with a cool, dignified elegance, and mezzo Elena Obraztsova, whose old witch of a Countess is at once menacing and fearful as she holds close her dark, secret curse.
The only false note in this production involved the sets. They were imported from the San Francisco Opera and are spare and underwhelming for such opulent music, save for the marvelous bridge scene. But in the end, the singing, the orchestra and the stellar Russian-centric cast rendered this a secondary issue.

***
WHAT: Washington Opera's production of "Carmen"
WHEN: 8 p.m. tomorrow, Thursday, May 29, May 31, June 4 and 6; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7 p.m. June 1 and 3

****
WHAT: Washington Opera's production of "The Queen of Spades"
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, May 28 and June 5; 7 p.m. today and June 8; 2 p.m. June 2
WHERE: Both at the Kennedy Center Opera House
TICKETS: $40 to $280
PHONE: 202/295-2400
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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