Portland Opera's season-opening production of Bizet's Carmen closed last night to a well-deserved standing ovation. Despite an unfortunately off-kilter conceptualization of the title role, the strong cast gave a committed, passionate performance.
Jossie Perez is a lucky lady. Her natural beauty and shapely figure would have been enough to dominate the stage even without her beautiful, fearless, musical and expressive singing. Her rich, vibrant, flexible voice pealed effortlessly over the orchestra, despite an announcement that she was suffering from a sinus infection which had caused her to sit out the previous night. I'm going to guess, then, that some of the less distinct vowels in her French and a few high notes that edged toward shrill were the results of her illness. I spent much of the evening thinking about other roles I'd like to her her do; Favorita's Leonora came to mind as well as -- someday -- Amneris.
The character of Carmen is often described as "wild," but Perez was unhinged. Carmen is shrewd, she is manipulative, she is both wise and fickle, and she wields her immense sexual power deftly. For the first act, Perez was not in the zone, though she was tamer in later parts of the opera, probably because her predatory, psychosexual tramp was reigned in by what's actually written in the score. This was a Carmen whose closest stage relative is the Beggar Woman from Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.
In the first act, there is supposed to be a wonderful dramatic symmetry between Carmen (and the text of her famous opening aria, the Habanera) and Don Jose; if you love me, I don't love you, but if I love you, watch out! That's the summary of the whole situation; Carmen has no interest in the drooling horndogs who show up like clockwork every day to ogle her on her breaks from the cigarette factory; she sings and dances for them, yes, but the message is clear: keep dreamin'. But suddenly there is Don Jose, who doesn't pay attention at all. Carmen is intrigued. She likes a challenge.
Unfortunately the Portland production was more of a Gypsies Gone Wild version; Carmen poured water over her breasts and then proceeded to give the men of the square a free lapdance. When her attention turned to Jose, it was closer to outrage that he was disinterested in her garish burlesque.
Richard Troxell used his lighter, lyric tenor wisely in the difficult role of Don Jose, singing beautifully but with restraint for most of the evening in order to deliver in the heftier final scenes. The final confrontation between the two lovers was electric. As the bullfighter Escamillo, Mark S. Doss brought the requisite swagger and bravado to the stage along with a deep, rich voice and secure, bronze-toned high notes; nonetheless, his Escamillo was long on off-putting arrogance and short on innate charm.
As Micaela, Portland favorite Maureen O'Flynn won warm applause; her characterization of the sweet, trusting country girl who displays surprising courage was good, but there were many places where her intonation tilted flat.
The smaller roles were mostly strongly sung; Carmen's four companions (Dancaire, Remendado, Frasquita and Mercedes) were all undertaken by Portland Opera Studio members and they were promising, indeed. Sharin Apostolou as Frasquita, in particular, delighted with bubbly stage presence and an easy, sparkling top. The chorus sounded great.
I confess Carmen is not my favorite opera; it's nice, I see why it's so beloved, but it doesn't really captivate me until the last act, which for me is one of a handful of perfectly self-contained acts in opera. Despite my misgivings about certain other moments in this production, the staging of Carmen's murder was first-class. All in all, an auspicious opening to a promising new season.