Blossom Festival:  Carmen  
In the live opera experience, there are few works in the repertoire that can be as satisfying as Bizet's Carmen, quite possibly the most popular opera in the world.  On Saturday, August 14, 1999, Blossom Festival gave reason for this with a thrilling concert performance of the work, with conductor Leonard Slatkin giving his Blossom farewell after nine summers as Festival director.  The performance was semi-staged, with the principles moving and acting across the stage in front of the orchestra, but there were no sets, costumes, or props.

One of the greatest strengths in this performance was that of the title role, sung by Beatrice Uria-Monzon.  Famed for this role all over the world, her dark, mesmerizing voice soon had Don Jose, as well as the audience, under her spell.  Her entrance aria, the famous Habanera, was acted and sung sensually.  To convey this, Ms. Uria-Monzon would sing in full voice, followed by an abrupt decrease in volume, an interesting trick employed here and in many other places throughout the opera.  The Seguidilla was just as impressive, and the gloomy Card aria appropriately depressing.  The Chanson that opened the second Act was a fine display of vocal fireworks.

The other truly strong singer of the evening was Norah Amsellem as Micaela, a role she sang for the Metropolitan Opera's opening night in 1997.  Her Act III aria, "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante," stopped the show, her tender lyric soprano shining in every note.  The Act I duet, with Jose, also was a highlight.  She was easily the object of any listener’s sympathy.  Has anybody else noticed that we have an abundance of terrific Micaelas today?

As Don Jose, tenor Luca Lombardo gave a satisfactory performance.  Some of his best work came in the Act I duet with Micaela, where he sang the last notes in perfect falsetto.  The Flower Aria offered an opportunity to show off his light, lyric voice.  He was also appropriately violent at the end of the 3rd and 4th acts.  This tenor has done a lot of work in Europe.

Escamillo was sung by the French baritone Franck Ferrari, who made a memorable entrance in Act II and sang the Toreador Aria vividly.  His only problem seemed to be in staying together with the orchestra, especially in Act III.

The comprimari were all well-cast.  Kishna Davis and Mary Ann McCormick as Frasquita and Mercedes sang a memorable Card Trio.  As Dancairo and Remendado, David Cangelosi and Tony Stevenson sang and acted with comic flair, shining in the unforgettable Act II quintet.  Raymond Aceto was impressive as Zuniga, with formidable stage presence and his commanding voice making the most of the captain's lines, and Andrew Schroeder was a solid Morales.

The Cleveland Orchestra was fantastic, and thankfully Bizet gave them plenty of places to shine, such as the stirring opening, or the Ent'racte before Act III.  Leonard Slatkin gave the performance great leadership, and one will really miss him here at Blossom in the future.  The Blossom Festival Chorus was one of the best I've ever heard live.  The Act I Cigarette Chorus was a treat, especially the ladies, and they also got a chance to shine in the difficult chorus that follows later in the Act, where they all try to tell the story of Carmen's fight in the factory.  The entire chorus was convincing as the smugglers, but I've always wondered how they're able to get around undetected, with such an enormous group of criminals! Oh, well, it's only opera.

Sadly, the biggest weakness of the evening was the Cleveland Orchestra Children's Chorus, which had a strong start, but then skipped a verse in their opening chorus, while the orchestra was in the right place.  The result sounded so puzzling as to make it noticeable to pretty well anybody.  It took a whole page for them to get back together, but even after that, the children's chorus sang with hesitation, and Maestro Slatkin felt obligated to give giant cues thereafter when dealing with them.  Another problem was the poor handling of the subtitles, causing the crucial dialogue before Carmen's death to be almost totally lost.

The semi-staged concert idea worked all right most of the time, but in some places it was amusing.  Carmen couldn’t actually throw Don Jose the flower, since there were no props.  But surely the "No Props" rule could be modified a bit when the object in question becomes the subject of an aria, right?  Plus, in the Act III duel, Jose and Escamillo just stared each other down for about twenty seconds, supposedly giving the impression that they were fighting.  And then, Carmen rushed in, “separated” them, and Escamillo thanked her for saving his life!  Sure Escamillo, we understand that you were in mortal danger from the glare of that tenor over there.  Finally, Don Jose never stabbed Carmen, so the only way we could tell that she was dead was that she hung her head a bit.  All of this is not to say I didn't enjoy the idea of a concert with acting, but it could have been made less confusing for opera beginners, of which there were no doubt many for an outdoor Carmen.

However, when all is said and done, this was an exceptional performance of Carmen, one that was well-suited to the departure of Slatkin, and one that sent me home very happy.  Bravo Blossom!

Adam Cioffari

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Copyright:  © 1999 Adam Cioffari

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