- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Washington National Opera’s gritty but colorful production of George Bizet’s “Carmen,” which opened at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Saturday, is powerfully energized by the phenomenal physical and vocal presence of Washington native and superstar mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in the title role.

Miss Graves proves once again why she’s almost certainly the greatest Carmen of our time.

The last time she appeared here in the role, more than 10 years ago, Miss Graves portrayed Carmen as a slinky seductress. This time, her Carmen is tougher, as she imbues the role with considerable vocal brassiness, almost literally snarling when vexed and rarely waxing lyric. Some might wish for a kinder, gentler lyric approach, but Miss Graves’ current interpretation sheds a new light on her impatient, ur-feminist character, who is transformed into a predator, a veritable queen of the underworld.

As her hapless lover, Don Jose, tenor Thiago Arancam excels in a difficult role. Jose is probably the wimpiest hero in opera, but Mr. Arancam gives him considerable dignity, transforming him into a genuinely good guy who literally is destroyed by the irresistible force of Carmen. His voice is clear and packed with surprising power, enabling him to display his lyric gifts while adding heft to the ensemble numbers.

The surprise of the evening was bass-baritone Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillo, the swaggering matador. Slight of build, he erupted in his Act II entrance into an authoritative figure who easily catches the fickle Carmen’s attention. His voice sliced like a knife through both chorus and orchestral accompaniment, not an easy task in this vocal range.

In smaller roles, the supporting cast also excelled, especially soprano Sabina Cvilak, who sang a genuinely moving Micaela, the opera’s hapless good girl; soprano Jennifer Waters and mezzo Cynthia Hanna as Carmen’s female sidekicks; and company veteran bass John Marcus Bindel as Zuniga, Jose’s classless commanding officer.

The production, a relatively simple affair originated by the Austin Lyric Opera, worked well, and Lennart Mork’s colorful flamenco-influenced costuming was particularly dazzling in the dramatic finale.

With everything going for it, especially the outstanding soloists, you would think this production would easily score four stars. And maybe it will. Later this week.

Opening night seemed surprisingly jittery. Much of the problem seemed to stem from dismayingly frequent disconnects between the orchestra pit and the singers onstage.

At times, particularly during the first act, the chorus was barely audible over the instrumentalists. Throughout the opera, but particularly in up-tempo ensembles, neither the orchestra, the soloists nor the chorus seemed able to agree on the tempo.

The orchestral coloration itself was not always up to par, with the string players entirely overwhelmed at times by the brass and woodwinds, particularly in the overture. This is all quite puzzling, as all the musical forces are under the baton of the distinguished Julius Rudel, long a fixture at the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap.

Perhaps these problems were simply caused by inadequate rehearsal time. They need to be fixed, and soon, to bring this production up to the quality it almost certainly can achieve and that the audience and performers deserve.

Mezzo Laura Brioli will sing Carmen in the Nov. 12 and 18 performances. All performances are billed as “sold out,” but it never hurts to give the box office a call on the day of performance to see if a ticket has been returned.

WHEN YOU GO

★★★

WHO: Washington National Opera

WHAT: Georges Bizet’s “Carmen”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Nov. 10 at 7 p.m.; Nov. 12, 14, 18, 19 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 16 at 2 p. m.

TICKETS AND INFORMATION: tickets $25 to $300; 202/295-2400 or 800-US-OPERA

MAXIMUM RATING; FOUR STARS

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