The 517th performance (dating back to January 14, 1947) of Bizet’s love-gone-mad masterpiece was a decidedly mixed affair that occasionally approached but never could attain the lofty heights of truly grand opera.
The chief deficiency was conductor Daniel Oren’s erratic tempi (too fast or too slow: both were on offer) and his patent inability to stitch his band together much less link the orchestra seamlessly to the cast and chorus.
The purely orchestral music which introduces each act certainly foreshadowed what was about to unfold: the Prelude took off at such a giddy clip (barely before the musicians had a chance to sit following the enthusiastic ovation from the capacity house) that the total runtime threatened to come in under two hours. The first Entr’acte trotted along amiably, with an extra-dry bassoon, yet without much notice of phrase. The Act III Entr’acte was launched with an unpleasantly affected melodic line which collapsed into an extremely overdone “relaxation” at every cadence, producing the first murder of the night sixty minutes too soon. The last Entr’acte had plenty of zip but an untidy tambourine kept the sheen off the intended brilliance. All told, a surprising and disappointing result for one of the planet’s finest opera houses.
Following the effective opening tableau (all black-and-white as the prisoner of infatuation revealed his fate) Francesca Zambello’s direction took the route of matching the dramatic action with Bizet’s end-of-number punctuation.
After a time, this device became tiresome and—like the orchestra—held no guarantee that the bodies would fall on cue. On more than one occasion, this forced-marriage of blocking and score robbed the audience of any time to reflect or show its appreciation for what had just transpired.
The energetic children’s chorus (Tiffin Girls’ School/Trinity Boys Choir) had a hoot in the early going and, with help from the acting children—even managing to upstage Polyanne the donkey—but by their last hurrah, leading up and into the bullfight ring, the top was too flat for comfort. No worries: the confetti was soon tossed in sync with the murderous dagger finding its mark.
The adult choristers were generally consonant-lite and unable to interpret Oren’s gestures. The resulting lack of precision and crispness left more of their contributions in the academic rather than rousing category. The notable exception being the last third of the gypsies dance (Arthur Pita, choreographer) prior to their offstage heist. The Flatley stomps finally connected and the slight acrobatics added frothy icing to a—by now—very exciting cake. Another piece, please.
Of the principals, Susan Gritton’s Micaëla was a continuous pleasure—her famous aria (aside from some wayward horns) the best, consistently musical item of the evening. As Carmen, Nancy Fabiola Herrera brought passion and petulance to the role but fell just a cigarette short (in this butt-out century, the dry-ice fog that hung in the air as the fag factory employees took to the stage after their shift seemed foreign, showing just how far we’ve evolved in switching our view of smoking from seductive and sexy to pathetic and scornful) of exotically hot. Still, being saddled with near-burlesque antics (dress over head of lover) via Zambello didn’t help.
Marcelo Álvarez had an uneven outing as Don José. At his best, the closing scene was gripping and beautifully sung: here was a confused hero to die for. But when the Act II “flower” aria built magnificently, both musically and dramatically, only to falter at its climax: the shared disappointment was palpable. Live performance has no chance for a much-needed “Take 2.”
Equally troubling was Kyle Ketelsen adding an extra measure and leaving the entire Royal Opera House Orchestra (and Oren) at a loss for sound during the “Toreador’s Song.” Luckily, the boo birds didn’t fly by for a cackle. Like mounting Louis the horse, the intent was fine, but the delivery slightly off.
Thank goodness for Tanya McCallin’s fiery sets and Paule Constable’s lighting wizardry. Functional, believable, earth-tone rich—replete with an orange tree—we felt the Spanish sun, savoured Bizet’s gift in its marvellous trappings and can only hope that a more cohesive whole will emerge for performance 518. JWR