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Strong Leads in Problematic Production of Carmen

San Jose
Opera San Jose, Montgomery Theatre
02/05/2000 -  and 6, 8, 10*, 12, 13, 15, 17, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27, February, 2000
Georges Bizet: Carmen
Layna Chianakas/Eliza Warner (Carmen), Thomas Truhitte/Jonathan Hodel (Don Jose), Roberto Perlas Gomez/Constantinos Yiannoudes (Escamillo) Christina Major/Barbara Divis (Micaela), Aimee Patrice Puentes/Kristin Genis (Frasquita), Patrice Houston/Monica Barnes (Mercedes), Joseph Wright/Eli Fochs (Dancaire), Adam Flowers/Jason Black (Remendado), Christopher Dickerson (Zuniga), Carl King (Morales), Jerome Dixon (Lilas Pastia)
Orchestra and Chorus of Opera San Jose, Barbara Day Turner (Conductor)
Daniel Helfgot (Stage Director)

In the company’s second production of Bizet’s perennial favorite, Carmen, Opera San Jose assembled a strong cast of principal artists in a new production directed by the company’s Director of Production, Daniel Helfgot. Helfgot put a lot of energy and effort into getting passionate, committed performances from his four lead singers, but the rest of the production was a maddening, distracting blend of good ideas and inattention to details.
For many, the opera lives and dies by its heroine, and in this production, Layna Chianakas did not disappoint. A shamelessly selfish Carmen, Chianakas made no attempt to curry audience favor with an excessively sympathetic Carmen. Cruelty and insensitivity were as much a part of the characterization as were sensuality and impetuosity. At times Chianakas seemed almost uninvolved, so passive was her presence, but then her presence would blaze forth and there was no doubt that the role suits both her temperament and her voice. Vocally she seemed to have no problems with the role. Despite the heavy demands the role makes on the middle range, Chianakas poured out a steady stream of full, vibrant sound, expertly shaded and colored, her French clear and precise.
As Don Jose, Thomas Truhitte threw caution to the wind and gave his best performance with the company yet. Truhitte was particularly convincing in the final two acts when Don Jose gives way to desperation. The young tenor sounded robust and passionate and his acting reflected his involvement. Earlier on in the opera, his top tended toward nasality and lacked the power and thrust heard in the later acts, but overall his performance bespoke of growth, development and hard work paying off big time.
Christina Major’s Micaela was full of vocal strength and dramatic involvement. Her third act aria in particular displayed a full, warm middle range and a welcome vocal freedom and expressivity. While her first scene with Don Jose was hampered by a silly, distracting staging, in the third act Major showed a keen dramatic sense and gave her scene a urgency and fervor not present earlier.
Confident, cocky and bursting with energy, Roberto Perlas Gomez played Escamillo to the hilt. His resonant, youthful baritone sounded free and full in his "Votre toast", only the lowest notes becoming inaudible. Perlas Gomez kept the lyricism in the role too, making for a suave as well as swaggering toreador.
Of the supporting cast, the gypsies made out better than the military. Aimee Patrice Powers (Frasquita), Patrice Houston (Mercedes), Joseph Wright (Dancaire) and Adam Flowers (Remendado) all gave vocally sound, musically secure performances, tossing off the Act II quintet with tight harmonies and a sure rhythmic pulse.
The chorus also made a commendable contribution, though the production cut the opening chorus numbers in both Act Three and Act Four. These and other cuts seemed to be made with an eye on the clock (the performance ran under three hours even with two fifteen minute intermissions) and with little concern for continuity. Even more heavily cut was the dialogue. It made little sense to use the spoken dialogue with a non-French speaking cast and then reduce it to shreds.
The staging also had its problems, ranging from a lack of attention to detail to dodging challenges entirely. Having Don Jose and Micaela sit down to bread and wine (complete with a table cloth, napkins and lovely green glasses which then showed up in the tavern in Act II) made little sense. Neither singer took a single sip of wine, Tuihitte’s attempt to eat the bread was clearly faked, and Micaela then left it behind for Don Jose to clean up while the cigarette girls carried on about the fight between Carmen and Manuelita.
Among the bigger problems was the lack of dancing in the production. Gary Masters was credited as the movement coach, but such episodes as the gypsy dance at the beginning of Act II was little more than arm waiving and skirt swirling with none of the movement suggested in Bizet’s score.
For the most part, Giulio Cesare Perrone’s heavy, architectural setting worked for this staging of Carmen, but the opening was badly miscalculated with two very wide pillars the height of the stage place downstage far enough to be visually distracted and create major sightline problems. The shift half way through the act made no sense, but it was a relief to have the columns gone. When later the same configuration was used in the last act, it worked much better even though the two pillars served to frame a member of the cast who constantly fidgeted, swayed and otherwise distracted from the final confrontation between Don Jose and Carmen.

Kelly Snyder



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