Carmen, Philadelphia

The grand opera
version requires a voluptuous dramatic mezzo voice with a menacing flash of
steel and booming chest tones. This musical style lends itself to a dramatic
portrayal of the gypsy as a dangerous, snarling man-eater—a tigress
capable of drawing a knife on Don JosÈ, had he not drawn one on her first. In
the end, this Carmen seeks to seduce us by overwhelming us. This ideal is
approximated by Grace Bumbry, Maria Ewing, Marilyn Horne, and, though she is
always unique, Maria Callas.

The second type of Carmen, which reflects Georges Bizet’s roots in the
French opÈra-comique, calls for a smaller, more lyrical voice with a
gentler timbre, smooth projection, and precise attention to delicate
inflections of language and line. On this view, the gypsy is not a tigress but
(as the libretto says of love) a bird. This Carmen is less blatantly
threatening than her dramatic twin, yet her flirtatious, exotic, distantly
self-absorbed manner poses just as great a danger to our hearts. She seduces
not by overpowering but by mesmerizing. This approach is taken by Victoria de
los Angeles and Teresa Berganza.

Most who sing Carmen these days aspire to the dramatic ideal, but Rinat
Shaham, Philadelphia’s choice, fits the lyric model. Shaham is a
Haifa-born mezzo who trained at the local Curtis Institute, debuted with the
company as Zerlina in 1994, and has sung the role of Carmen to acclaim in
theaters across the world, notably Glyndebourne. Shaham’s voice is not
enormous, but it is focused, possesses an attractive sheen, and is articulated
very evenly top to bottom. She phrases with understatement, a virtue lamentably
absent among modern-day Carmen’s. Some quieter moments were memorable:
the interposed “L’amour” in the “Toreador Aria”
comes to mind, as does the Act III (“card”) trio, which suits her
lovely low notes and contemplative manner. With black curls, flashing eyes, and
slender curves popping out of the corset all Carmen’s seem to wear these
days, she cuts an alluring figure on stage—and on posters throughout

The result was in many respects agreeable. Absent throughout, however, were
musical-dramatic subtleties essential for a lyric portrayal of Bizet’s
gypsy to aspire to artistic greatness: the delicate use of glissando,
rubato, rhythmic accent, idiomatic diction, timbre and color, and
phrasing through the line. The “Habanera” was deadened by breathiness and an
unyielding tempo, whether the fault of the conductor or singer. Shaham seemed
to focus in the “Seguidilla” more on movement than voice, concluding with a
needlessly strident cry. In the final scene, Shaham did not—vocally
speaking—push herself to the edge of either desperation or fatalism.
Without the extra interpretive effort, the performance seemed much blander than
this artist’s potential, let alone the very best historical

fullres_2011_09_28_KM0405.gifDavid Pomeroy as Don Jose and Ailyn Perez as Micaela

Ailyn PÈrez, the young Academy of Vocal Arts-trained soprano, posed a
striking contrast as MichaÎla. PÈrez’s voice, pleasant and precise if
slightly metallic, is no match for Shaham’s. Moreover, the plot turns in
part on the obvious fact that neither the personality or music of MichaÎla, the
nice god-fearing girl from the country, can match that of Carmen. Yet PÈrez
imbued every line with creative imagination, especially the famous aria, where
subtle dynamics, precise diction and firm sense of the where it was all going
conjured up the evening’s most memorable moments and greatest

Canadian tenor David Pomeroy made a solid Don JosÈ. Though his voice lacks
the ring, precision or the sweetness some bring to the part, he phrased with
intelligence and precision, improving as the night went on, and he looks the
part of a proud, if unimaginative, Basque. Another young Curtis alum, Jonathan
Beyer, cut an imposing figure as Escamillo, though his voice, though
well-produced, is a bit less grand—a problem in a part where one wants to
be overpowered by testosterone. Well-trained if uneven young voices, mostly the
products of local institutions, appeared in the smaller roles.

The conducting by Philadelphia’s music director, Bergamo-born Corrado
Rovaris, displayed what I have come to think are his characteristic strengths
and weaknesses. He imbues performances with energy. The music moves along, and
achieves a certain excitement in hard-driving, straight-forward
passages—as in the famous PrÈlude. Yet the result can sound unimaginative
where the score calls for flexibility, ambiguity, or shifts in mood.

fullres_2011_09_28_KM0746.gifRinat Shaham (center) as Carmen, Tammy Coil (left) as Mercedes and Greta Ball (right) as Frasquita, with Jeremy Milner as Zuniga

Visually, the production by Allen Charles Klein cleaves to a formula that
has helped to make opera in Philadelphia popular and financially solvent: a
grand unit set in traditional style, accessorized for each act with different
props, costumes, and lighting—the latter sometimes tending toward
slightly garish blues and oranges, courtesy of Drew Billiau. Outside of Act I,
none of this adds much atmosphere or insight, but the audience seems to enjoy
it. The stage direction, by David Gately, follows the formulas of previous
productions, but enlivens them with a few fine touches: several suggestions of
Carmen as a caged animal and liberty with the libretto, whereby she never finds
the second-act castanets, dancing the duet instead with the (usually discarded)
pieces of cracked plate.

Andrew Moravcsik

image_description=Rinat Shaham as Carmen and David Pomeroy as Don Jose [Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography courtesy of Opera Company of Philadelphia]
product_title=Georges Bizet: Carmen
product_by=Click here for cast list.
product_id=Above: Rinat Shaham as Carmen and David Pomeroy as Don Jose

All photos by Kelly & Massa Photography courtesy of Opera Company of Philadelphia