- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

You know you shouldn't, but you can't stop yourself. That's the story behind Carmen, whether you're talking about the 1875 Georges Bizet version or its 1943 update by Oscar Hammerstein. It certainly was the case in last weekend's megaproduction of "Carmen Jones" at the Kennedy Center, starring Vanessa Williams, conducted by Placido Domingo and featuring the Boys Choir of Harlem and the Howard University Chorus.
There's Joe (Don Jose), played by Tom Randle, who knows he shouldn't stray from his loyal Cindy Lou, played by Harolyn Blackwell, but can't stop himself from getting ensnared by sultry factory worker Carmen. There's Cindy Lou herself, who knows she probably won't get her man back by running after him but can't stop herself from running even harder. Of course, too, there's Carmen, who knows she shouldn't bother with the nice but hardly exhilarating Joe but manages to hook up with him anyway.
As Carmen, Vanessa Williams probably should have known the role might not adequately showcase her expressive, fur-lined package of sound in the same way that singing on Broadway or in a recording studio might. Carmen is, at bottom, a demanding operatic role, written for a singer with a highly trained voice who can swoop and rise with ease and aplomb. Plus, Miss Williams had a long line of tough acts to follow.
Anyone singing Carmen, even the scintillating Denyce Graves, is necessarily compared to the great Carmens of the past: Rise Stevens, Leontyne Price and Marilyn Horne, who dubbed the singing parts for Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 film version of "Carmen Jones."
Miss Williams certainly looked better, in her hot-pink Oscar de la Renta ensemble than many of the great Carmens who went before her. She certainly could swoop with the best of them, too, showing off her sultry, soul-infused talent to advantage in such numbers as "Dat's Love" and "Dat Ol' Boy." The problem came when pieces strayed, as they often did, out of Miss Williams' range.
Just when the intention of the music was to evoke an intense emotional response by means of a high note or two, Miss Williams, of necessity, had to back off. Such vocal diffidence translated into a certain distance in the character, leaving Carmen Jones more ice queen than hot-blooded temptress. Clearly, it takes more than clothes and pose to make a great Carmen.
Audiences know they probably shouldn't cheer more for the co-star than the star, but after Harolyn Blackwell's second-act aria, "My Joe," the Concert Hall audience simply couldn't stop. Even jaded orchestra members put down their instruments to join in the applause after a heartfelt performance that prompted a tear or two from Mr. Domingo and resulted in a soprano who needed a moment or two to recover her own sense of composure.
Miss Blackwell has long been one of the best-kept secrets of the operatic world, a silvery-voiced singer who has performed many times at the Kennedy Center and the Metropolitan Opera.
Cast members faced their own sets of challenges as they paraded across the Concert Hall's stage, which they shared with members of the National Symphony Orchestra. There was no set in this concert version, which made following the action a bit more difficult for those unfamiliar with the plot, especially when the stage was filled with just about everyone in the production. Yet, those moments turned out to be some of the best in the show, especially when the Howard University Chorus let loose and turned up the energy a notch or two.
Members of the ensemble turned in some fine moments as well, especially Michele Gutrick as Frankie and Thomas R. Beard Jr. as Corporal Morrel. It's a pity Washington-area singers don't always get the respect and attention they deserve. One often hears them only in smaller roles during performances such as this one, when the principals have been shipped in from elsewhere.
As Joe, the soldier who probably should have stayed with the old girlfriend, Tom Randle faced the daunting challenge of singing under the baton of tenor Placido Domingo, who has performed the role countless times on the stage and screen and in the recording studio. Mr. Randle nevertheless acquitted himself with ease, bringing just the right combination of resignation and desperation as well as a creamy tenor to the role.
As Husky Miller, baritone Gregg Baker didn't even have to sing to get a response. All he had to do was stand there, all 6 feet of him, with just the sort of stage presence and sexual energy that called up memories of Paul Robeson in his prime. When Mr. Baker finally opened his mouth and sang the familiar toreador song, ("Stan' Up and Fight" in this version), the comparison to Mr. Robeson was even more apt. If Spike Lee ever chooses to do a movie about that leftist icon, he shouldn't have to look very far for the lead.
In the end, just about everyone got a standing ovation, thanks in large part to Miss Blackwell, who came out early in the queue.

***
WHAT: "Carmen Jones"
WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall MAXIMUMRATING:FOURSTARS


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