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A glorious and gory Carmen

Clementine Margaine portrayed the title role in Carmen.Photo by Scott Suchman
Clementine Margaine portrayed the title role in Carmen.
Photo by Scott Suchman

Carmen, one of the greatest dramatic and melodic achievements of the operatic repertoire, has been given a fine vocal and musical — and intense — presentation by the Washington National Opera at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Written by Georges Bizet, Carmen premiered in 1875 and follows the conventions of set arias and chorus, yet transitions into a verismo opera by the third act. It was considered a failure following its premiere at the Opera Comique in Paris. Three months later, Bizet collapsed and died from stress, disappointed by the reception of his greatest work. Bizet’s opera became a favorite in every opera house in the world, as well as a vehicle for great voices with dramatic flare.

Bizet was the gifted student of Jacques Fromental Halevy, whose opera, La Juive, broke the taboo of presenting a Jewish subject in a sympathetic manner. This established him as a master of 19th century French Academy composers. Bizet married Halevy’s daughter, Genevieve, who was one of the most famous salon dwellers of Paris where artists gathered for music, art and literature.

In addition, her uncle, Ludovic Halevy, co-authored the libretto for Carmen. Jules Elie Delaunay’s portrait of Genevieve Bizet in black, remains a favorite French portrait, as it portrays both her beauty and the pain of losing Bizet at an early age.

The opening overture of the opera captures the rhythm of flamenco and the very spirit of Spain’s romantic city of Seville. Carmen has a magnificent opening chorus, leading to the children’s chorus, “Avec La Garde Montante,” sung by the talented street urchins.

The children’s chorus here sang beautifully, yet it was distracting that they looked like very clean suburban children without a speck of dust or dirt on their faces or clothes. Did someone run out of makeup?

The costumes and sets were rich with vibrant color, yet the combination of realism and abstract sets did not quite work for me. While the chorus never failed to be less than excellent, the use of a large table to stand on reminded me of musical comedy, and it served no purpose.

Carmen has only to sing and we know we cannot escape this seductive music; here, Carmen was sung by Clementine Margaine, who is perfect in this role, matching the great Rise Stevens and Concita Supervia.

Rafael Davila as Don Jose sang the “Flower Song” with ringing tones and good legato, especially in the slow scale ascending finale of the aria. His sound is dramatic, and I hope that this singer will find a lighter side to his fine voice. Among many excellent supporting singers, the role of Micaela was sung by Jania Brugger. Her voice was so beautiful that you could feel the electrical current it generated in the audience. She gave a truly moving performance with a voice Washingtonians will be talking about.

Conductor Evan Rogister led a polished and energetic performance of the Washington National Opera Orchestra.  But, I had the feeling that many of the details of the arias were not properly mined, especially instructions for rubato, tenuto and fermata for the singers. Attention to detail and knowledge of historic performance practice adds depth and nuance. What a missed opportunity here.

As the opera progressed, some of these details were coaxed out, and when this happened, the instrumental overtures and interludes were applauded. While all the musicians played well, the winds were especially notable.

Choreographer Sara Erde created flamenco dances which opened each section of the opera, while the orchestra played the overture and interludes. Fanny Ara and Timo Nunez performed these so well, the audience craved an encore. Again, I was bothered in the first act as the flamenco dancers danced in a percussive manner over the opening overture.

A question needs to be asked: Could they have done this as a prologue in silence, followed by the musical explosion of the orchestra, rather than adding to the crafted work Bizet has given us?

After all, with Carmen, Bizen has given us so much — and not just musically. The chorus of migrants in the third act reminds us of Syria and of the human challenges facing our world as hundreds of thousands of people continue to be displaced.

Carmen, composed by Georges Bizet, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, in French, based on the novella by Prosper Merimee, presented Oct. 1 by the Washington National Opera at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Arnold Saltzman is composer of opera, symphonies and ballet, and the rabbi of three Maryland congregations.

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