So I don't really know why Lyric decided to bookend their season with performances of Carmen this year, but 'tis so. September's performances featured Denyce Graves (guess), Neil Shicoff (Jose), Andrea Rost (Lana Lang [aka Micaela]), and Ildebrando "most improbable name I've ever heard" D'Arcangelo (Escamillo), and my beloved Lauren McNeese (Mercedes). Our performance had Viktoria Vizin, Vincenzo La Scola, Patricia Racette, and Mark Doss, and Elizabeth de Shong (lately seen as Poor Violet in Rosenkavalier) as Mercedes. Just to keep things complicated, The denizens of Casa Wombata had seen a completely different and comprehensively terrible production of Carmen in Kansas City back in September.
At the first intermission (when J & C had hopped into the bar line with such alacrity that I think L and I had to wait about 20 seconds before we had alcohol in hand), I asked 'wench if this production surpassed the KC Carmen.
C: Let me begin by saying of Carmen,"I'd tap that."
So say we all. With all respect to Denyce Graves, who is a world-class hottie in her own right, Viktoria Vizin was smokin'. I am neither lying nor exaggerating when I say that the habenera from Act I gave me chills (the good kind, not the "I'm going to rip that vibrato out of your head if you can't use it responsibly" kind). So, yeah, I think we were all ok with the B team.
I'm assuming that the production based on photos from the pamphlet of pomposity that feature Denyce Graves in very familiar settings. Although the synposis claims the setting as the 1830s in and near Seville, I can't entirely agree with their policework. In Act I, the military men can't really make up their minds whether they're part of the French foreign legion, some of the mythical "Banana Republic" prison guards from last spring's Fidelio, or refugees from the Fidelio that I actually saw, rather than the Fidelio the smacked-up reviewer from the Trib imagined he saw in a fever dream. It's a lot more North Africa than anything else and a good deal more 1930s than 1830s. It's all good though, because the smugglers escaped from the Sergio Leone Western of your choice and took at the serapes with them. But just to keep things grounded vaguely on the Iberian peninsula, there are sleepy peasants a-plenty who wander around in vests, puffy sleeves, and sleepyhead-masking boaters in a variety of colors.
Those of you who are not aware that I am sweetness and bloody fucking light might mistake the previous paragraph for snark and/or criticism. Such is a vulgar opinion. My only real point is that this production is actually set Elsewhere and among the Other. I think it's quite deliberately a little bit Casablanca with a healthy dose of The Good, the Bad, and the Geographically and Temporally Inspecific, because the story is fundamentally about the allure of the exotic.
Carmen must have Jose not only because he's the only man who's been paying her no nevermind, but also because he has such an obvious and present (not to mention completely alien to the gypsy) connection to home, mother, and Micaela when she first encounters him. Similarly, Jose is thoroughly charmed by Micaela (aka the Mama's-Boy's Crumpet) and love with the idea of doing his filial duty and yet he can't resist Carmen and can't relinquish his ties with her and her world, even as he grows to loathe himself. I was totally on board with ever so slightly 1940s-Pride-and-Prejudice nature of the costuming, especially as the anachronistic costumes were liberally interspersed with the gratuitous cleavage and crinoline that the discerning Carmen viewer demands.
Strangely enough, the schizophrenic costumes were the work of Robert Perdziola, not set designer Robin Don, who is pictured in the pompous pamphlet wearing Punchy's hat and a kafia around his neck. He's Scottish if that explains anything. Personal wardrobe choices aside, Don's set design was fabulous, even considering that he managed to create the world's only bullring featuring a concave exterior wall (oh, and the weird "Don't worry, Jose dies by firing squad" staging during the overture [Sunset Boulevard may have been a bridge too far as Hollywood nods go]). His overarching impression Spain, according to his PP blurb, was of "terrifying, relentless heat. I hope our walls in this Carmen look hot." (They did, but then again, what doesn't with Viktoria Vizin on set? [Have I mentioned our eagerness to pass her around like a Marge Simpson Doobie?])
The square outside the cigarette factory for Act I, in particular, gave off a great languid vibe. The factory itself was set stage right and largely represented by its exterior stairs and balcony with signage and hanging tobacco for authenticity. The area upstage was set about 4 feet higher than the square and divided from the stairs to the factory by picturesquely crumbling archways. Downstage left was littered with scaffodling and a 2-wheeled, hay-covered cart (ooh, shades of The Outlaw for all your Chyck-Western needs, too).
Downstage of factory, they lowered in a tattered reed awning that cast great slatted shadows on the floor, which ramped up the hot and dusty factor tremendously. In describing the set, it sounds cluttered and crowded, given how many bodies have to move on and off stage, but it was staged very smartly. The labyrinthine stairs to the factory and a nice broad ramp connecting the upstage level with the square let lots of people move on, off, and all about without needing a lubricant. The only odd note to the set (which also applies to the Act IV set) was the fact that there seemed to be an upper level to it all, but the only thing I could see of it were feet and sometimes objects hurled on to the stage.
In some ways, things just get better in Act II. In others, though, Act II contains the only staging that looks a little silly. The costumer ups the North African ante by dressing Lillas Pastia in a set of overtly Moroccan robes (he stops short of a fez, giving him a kind of half-hearted turban). Similarly, Danacaire and Remendado are pirate-y, but in a Levantine sort of way (I have this little fantasy that David Cangelosi refused to play the role unless he got an eyepatch---James Morris's Wotan eyepatch, for preference). But the rest of the tavern is pure Spain, with male flamenco dancers in their highly impressive (and high-waisted) skin-tight pants and nary a layer of crinoline spared in the skirts of the females dancers.
They brought the curtain up during the entr'acte, which was kind of odd. It required two pairs of dancers on the stage-within-a-stage at stage left (that has to win some kind of prize for hyphens and/or uses of the word stage in the same sentence) to shake what their costume designer gave 'em for a good long while to music that the audience clearly was not hearing. I have an imagination of my own, so this totally would not have ruined by immersion were it not for the MOTHERFUCKERS BEHIND US WHO WOULD NOT SHUT THE FUCK UP. The disconnect between the dancing and music led to a stage-whispered conversation about how NOT SPANISH THIS IS.
I digress. Stage at stage left: a bit cramped for the dancers and musicians who needed to occupy it, but I'll admit that it was necessary for the feel of the second Act in which performance continually invades what are supposed to be heartfelt, intimate interactions among the characters. As the Act progressed, the dancers gradually streamed on to the stage and thence on to the main floor, writhing in between, under, in front of, and on top of the taverns tables, all hot and lush. Upstage left was a staircase, the height of which was exaggerated by its narrowness and twistyness, reminding us all the while how far underground Carmen and her cohort exist. It also gives Escamillo plenty of room to do his little dance on the catwalk.
But while the dancing and the group sex were all well and good in terms of staging, the sub-subterranean smuggler's lair didn't quite work. Basically, they lowered in a backdrop consisting of a bunch of ratty reed matting that had a swath of blood-red cloth tossed over it (reminiscent of the same swath draped over the wall against which Jose is standing as he faced execution at the top of the opera). The cloth had some not-quite-random black streaks on it that led me to wonderfleetingly if they'd recycled a backdrop from Der Meistersinger, a production I did not see, but heard about because of [info]chicagowench's distress that everyone was treading on Our Lord and Savior's crotch (this is doubly touching when you realize that 'wench does not, in fact, consider Christ to be, well, Christ [i.e., she is a member of the tribe]).
At intermission part deux I confirmed that her mind had gone to a similar place. Other than the recycled rattan welcome mat, the smuggler's lair consists of an appropriately makeshift bed and a stiff-backed chair. It's a shitty mid-act transition to have to pull off, and it really does need to be a more private space than the tavern proper for a variety of reasons, but this was still beneath the rest of the production.
Act III's set (the moutain top smugglers' camp) drew an instinctive thumbs up from me. At center stage on each side, there were huge, jagged slabs set upright. These were nearly proscenium high and jutted so far into the stage that they left only a very narrow passage (and a glimpse of night sky, complete with a full moon) between them. Downstage things were relatively uncluttered with just enough jagged stone to give it the feel of a small plateau. Again, the staging really helped the blocking along. The great height of the slabs actually made them seem closer together than they were in reality. This enabled dozens of actors to wrestle in large numbers of crates, boxes, and other contraband on the stage with relative ease while still making it look hard.
One element of the staging in this Act did baffle and distract me a little bit, although some of it's my own fault. When Micaela shows up (under cover of midafternoon in the biggest, bluest dress in the county) and needs to hide, she ducks behind somethin that for all the world looked like a lovingly covered Weber Gold grill. And I have no idea whether it was a terribly constructed faux bolder that had been lurking downstage the entire time or if it was actually just a bunch of crates that had been stacked up and had a tarp thrown over them. Nonetheless, I kept expecting Micaela to declare that the burgers were up.
The costumes took a hard shift to the old West in this Act as well, with Carmen sporting a fabulous split skirt and suede jacket in a dull brownish-red. As always, her signature color made Carmen stand out, but she also gets to do a fair amount of stage business with guns, etc., which conveys the fact that her involvement with the group isn't quite so casual as the merry little quintet in Act II might've indicated. It also shows us a Carmen who has toughened up in response to the escalating violence in her relationship with Jose. This is a Carmen who may appear to be blithely telling him to get lost, but has the firepower to back it up. She's also a Carmen who can face her own inevitable death one minute and, in the next, don the tools of her trade in order to seduce the guards at the bottom of the pass.
Robin Don (he of the Punchy hat kafia ensemble) claims in his PP blurb that the Act IV set is what the entire set design is all about: "For each act of this production . . . we have a new stage picture, but it's all bound and held by the quality that we wanted for Act Four - like standing arena set, where we introduce elements to make the other three scenes." It's undeniably a cool set. Most of the stage is a semicircle of dusty, dirty, hot city street. Upstage and curving around to the wings was a proscenium-high wall of white plaster over brick.
The wall is broken up at regular intervals by lurid red doors, arched at the top and opening from the center. When these were opened, a cyc was visible that had been painted to depict the crowd assembled for the bullfight. (AGAIN as the LOUD MOTHERFUCKERS would have us know, this was NOT VERY SPANISH! MORE DEGAS, really! I have an announcement, motherfuckers, neither Bizet nor the Merimee [the author of the original story] was Spanish. There's a lot of Frenchy influence. Deal with it.) Unfortuantely, they're looking at . . . nothing . . . cause, uh, the round part appears to be out in the street. [info]plaid_tuba, who is not burdened by over literalism with regard to set design, pointed out that this visually places Carmen and Jose inside the bullring for their confrontation, but my brane just kept spitting it out.
Nonetheless, Act IV was thrilling, exciting, and beautiful. The soldiers carrying out a couple of barricades in an attempt to hold back the crowds as the cuadrilla filter in, making sweet, sweet air!love to their public, followed by the picadors and yet more love, and finally Escamillo himself. It's savage and frenetic, part Beatlemania, part crazy Manson worshippers. The pacing and energy of the blocking, the music, and the voices just all fell together beautifully. I almost forgot that everyone was, apparently, leaving the bull ring.
It goes without saying that the toreros' costumes were astounding, right down to their hot pink socks. The crowd had the same peasant elements as in Act I, but with just the right touch of Sunday best for the down at heel. Carmen, of course, is the crown jewel, though in tier upon tier of ivory lace, complete with a demure mantilla. A red flower pinning up her pile of hair is the only nod to the authentic "Carmencita." The choice of ivory for her resonated nicely with a few other costuming choices. First of all, she is clad mostly in off-white (as are most of the girls from the factory), with a red sash and a small scarf that she tucks in her bodice to set her off. In Act II, the arm ornament with whom Escamillo arrives is wearing almost an identical get up, but in black from head to toe. Even as she senses that she's facing her own death, Carmen could never take things so seriously as to wear black, dontcha know.
All in all, it's very hard for me to regret that cast we saw. If I may cease being shallow on the subject of the Hungarian Hottie for a moment, Vizin was amazing, almost without exception. Much as her habanera really made me describe myself as tingly, there were a few moments of audible breathing where she almost seemed to lose her phrasing. I think that's partly attributable to the fact that she's at the beginning of her career and is bound to stumble technically from time to time, but she also has an incredibly vigorous stage presence. She was incredibly sensual, but it's stems from lithe, rapid movement that borders on the athletic. I can amost believe that she just miscalculated the energy she need to sustain both breathing and blocking. In Act IV there were moments when her physicality seemed to get a bit out of control, although I think I can write off at least some of the blame for that on the fact that Lo Scola was a wee, slightly rotund Jose who wasn't necessarily in a position to keep up with her physically at all times.
As for La Scola vocally, I didn't miss Schicoff (whom we've seen twice already, once in Tosca and once in Un ballo in maschera) unduly. During "Parle-moi de ma mere" I had a an "ah ha!" moment: So this is what the tenor obsession is all about. He was particularly well matched with Patricia Racette (Micaela), which lit their duet on fire, but there were times when he just wasn't holding his own against Vizin (more physically [see above] than vocally, but it took me out of the moment nearly as much as not having the pipes to go up against her). It's possible he was just having an off night or his Carmen mojo was in the shop, but whatever the cause, it amounted to a somewhat uneven performance that kept allowing my focus to shift back to his weeble-like physique.
It didn't help that they cast Christian van Horn, who is approximately 12 feet tall, weighing in at 106 lbs, as Zuniga. His long, lean frame in military threads (and---in the most cunning bit of blocking ever---out of those same military threads) rather inconveniently underscored La Scola's failure to be either long or lean. And, let's face it, van Horn's also a bass-baritone, which is many times hotter than a tenor, "ah ha moments" notwithstanding. Rounding out the military cast, it's always good to see Quinn Kelsey, who I've liked since way back in Faust.
I can't really speak to the Andrea Rost/Patricia Racette issue. According to the PP, we saw Rost as Giulietta in the highly problematic "I Capuleti e i Montecchi," but the tenor and mezzo were so atrocious in that that I have very little memory of her. I have no (or few) problems with Racette's voice (she leans a touch too much on the vibrato for my tastes, but I have to admit that she seems to deploy it as an artistic choice, rather than as a technical crutch). I do, however, wonder if she was the right choice for Micaela given the maturity of her voice. Also, I was weirded out that I had no memory of what I thought of her performance as Marguerite. Fortunately, I have a trusty Journal of Pomposity in which I catalogued the tidbit that we did not actually hear her in Faust, as she'd been replaced by Erin Wall for that part of the run.
In Racette's defense, as C pointed out, the vocal issues were not helped by the very matronly blue get up in which they had her trussed up, but for me it was primarily a question of voice. I can see her being their gal against La Scola given their vocal chemistry and a good physical/pacing match. But overall, she's more mom (which is highly disturbing, given Jose's preoccupation with dear old mom) than bright-eyed girl next door.
Mark Doss had the charisma needed for Escamillo and then some. On yet another shallow note, though, Mr. Improbability (Ildebrando D'arcangelo who was the Toreador of September) is very, very cute. I am quite shocked that my rambling about Don Giovanni from October 2004 contains no mention whatever of this bass-baritone hottie. I mean, it's true that Bryn Terfel is my one, true bass-baritone love, so I guess i was just appropriately focused on him. Or maybe Captain Unlikely's beauty is confined to the headshot.
Annnyyyway, back to the incredibly charming Doss. As cool looking a stage as the Act II stairs provided for Escamillo's strutting, it was vocally subideal. His "Votre Toast!" was more a polite clinking of spoon against glass where it ought to be smashing the glass with a vigorous "OPA!" Things picked up as he made his way down the stairs, though, and by Act II, he had the physical comedy and the vocal stuff all movin' and groovin' in tight, shiny-panted synchrony. (Once again, his acting made La Scola look a bit stuffy.)
Susanna Phillips and Elizabeth de Shong were talented and charming enough that I almost never thought of Frasquita and Mercedes as Carmen's Motown back-up singers, despite the pompous essayist's insistence on implanting that image in my head. They sparkled so much during the card-reading in Act III that it made Carmen's premonition of her own death all the more bleak.
In the doo-wop singer category, we had David Cangelosi as Dancaire and Rodell Rosel as Remendado. Cangelosi is completely and totally the workhorse of Lyric's company and their fortunate to have him. Like Vizin, he's quite a physical performer and the two clearly clicked in their scenes together. Rosel did his level best to keep up with four very talented (and for the most part, more experienced) performers, but in truth, he was a bit "I'm doing this quintet in concert," whereas everyone else was hearin' him laughin' and smellin' that French Perfume. I'm quite happy to give him time to grow into his mad acting skillz and he did very well vocally.
Finally (I'm on a deadline---L has gotten very demanding about the timing of these blatherings since he found Jesus), I'd like to give a shout out to the children's chorus from Act I. It's a weird inclusion that almost feels like it was tacked on for wholesomey goodness by censors (as Micaela was, to some extent). If a virtue injection was the intention, though, it's a strange choice to have them playing at soldiers who have been looking forward to the whoring up to that point. Regardless of the rationale for the inclusion, though, these guys were terrific: nonchirpy, engaging, and well-herded.
See? All along I've been thinking of the children. Definitely not of the gratuitous cleavage (is there any such thing) and all the writhing. Nossir, not me. I am spending quality time stepping on the Lord's crotch.
Labels: Chicago, Opera