By Lawrence Budmen

The 19th century French novelist Prosper Merimee created one of the great femme fatales in literary history – Carmen, immortalized by Georges Bizet’s operatic adaptation. Any production of Bizet’s work is highly dependent on the talents of the singing actress who plays the title role and Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham, who headlines Florida Grand Opera’s current revival, is a real live wire.

Shaham plays Carmen as a free spirit, a feminist before the term was invented. At Saturday’s opening performance, she generated heat from her first entrance. Her Carmen was intelligent and cunning, joyous and tragic. Shaham’s mesmeric musico-dramatic performance dominated the stage.

While her moderate size mezzo lacks the dusky glamour of Denise Graves or the velvety warmth of Rise Stevens, Shaham is an intelligent artist. Her subtly nuanced vocal inflections, attractive timbre, and smoldering intensity turned the gypsy into a vibrant theatrical presence.

Unlike many singers who merely vocalize, Shaham always made the connection between the score and the text. In Carmen’s final confrontation with Don Jose, Shaham’s boldly defiant declamation was combustible.

Sandra Lopez brought an opulent lyric soprano to the role of Micaela. Her fervor and theatrical temperament brought this often tepid character to vivid operatic life. Lopez’s lyrically soaring performance of Micaela’s third act aria received the ovation of the evening.

As Don Jose, William Joyner unleashed a French style tenor voice in the mode of Raoul Jobin and Guy Chauvet. His singing was undercut by occasional scooping and a weak lower register. Joyner powerfully conveyed Don Jose’s dramatic disintegration in the opera’s final acts. 

Franco Pomponi (as Escamillo) looked every inch a toreador but needed greater vocal weight. Megan Besley’s bright soprano and Kate Mangiameli’s dark mezzo turned Frasquita and Mercedes into the most mellifluous of smugglers. David Crawford gave baritonal heft and theatrical presence to Zuniga.

Stewart Robertson led a taut performance with a fine Gallic touch but The Florida Classical Orchestra needed a larger string contingent. 

Allen Charles Klein’s well traveled sets looked remarkably well in Todd Hensley’s striking lighting designs. 

Carmen lives on its title character but this production is definitely Rinat Shaham’s show.

Copyright Miami Herald

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