By Lawrence Budmen

Georges Bizet’s Carmen is the most popular opera of all time and for good reason. Bizet’s score is filled with indelible melodies, colorful orchestration, and the languid atmosphere of Spain writ large in Technicolor. Moreover Prosper Merimee (on whose novel the opera is based) created one of the most memorable femme fatals in theatrical history. The gypsy Carmen is the ultimate free spirit – irresistible, explosive, and independent.

Any production of Bizet’s masterpiece rests on the artist who plays the protagonist. Florida Grand Opera’s revival (which opened April 22 at Dade County Auditorium) has a real winner in Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham. Shaham is a pure theatrical animal. Her Carmen is mesmerizing. She moves with the grace of a dancer and dominates every scene. This Carmen is supremely intelligent, dangerous, and utterly captivating.

Shaham’s moderate size mezzo is lighter than the contemporary norm for this role. She lacks the dusky sound of Denise Graves or the smoldering warmth of Rise Stevens or the over the top vocal histrionics of Marilyn Horne or Agnes Baltsa. Her musicality and idiomatic French style, however, carry the day. In many ways Shaham’s light voice is more in the authentic French tradition. Alone among the singers in the cast Shaham made the connection between the score and the text. Her finely produced timbre embraced the music. The Habanera and Seguidilla were hypnotic; the Card Scene overwhelmingly tragic. Shaham’s Carmen was a total musico-dramatic experience. 

The other standout among the leading singers was Sandra Lopez as Micaela. A University of Miami graduate, Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions winner, and graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Training Program, Lopez is much more than a home town heroine. Her shining lyric soprano glowed iridescently in Micaela’s third act aria. Indeed she was the only artist who received an ovation that stopped the show on opening night. Not content to play Micaela in the usual weak, ill defined manner, Lopez made her a true rival to Carmen (for the affection of Don Jose).

William Joyner is a quasi-heldentenor in the French manner of Guy Chauvet. His singing was marred by uneven vocal production and an insecure lower register. Dramatically he made Don Jose a truly tragic figure. Joyner offered a gripping portrait of the soldier’s emotional disintegration. 

Franco Pomponi looked the role of the toreador Escamillo but his voice lacked weight and depth. How many singers today can do justice to this brief but pivotal role the way that Robert Merrill, Frank Guarrera, or Samuel Ramey once did? 

In a strong supporting cast, Megan Besley as Frasquita and Kate Mangiameli as Mercedes riveted attention. Besley’s bright toned soprano and Mangiameli’s dark mezzo timbre were gorgeous. They made the stock roles of the smugglers into strongly theatrical figures. 

Stewart Robertson’s fast paced conducting had lightness and flair. The Florida Classical Orchestra needed a larger string section. Too often they sounded like a wind ensemble. Why did Robertson play the Preludes to Acts II and III before the fouth act – thereby destroying Bizet’s musical symmetry? 

Director David Gately offered a strong recurrent, unifying visual image of Carmen viewing the cards of fate. Allen Charles Klein’s sets are decades old but they looked remarkably well in Todd Hensley’s evocative lighting.

The title character of Carmen continues to fascinate. For a gifted singing actress, it can be a tour de force. This FGO production clearly belongs to Rinat Shaham.

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