Opera News, October 2015
Stephen J. Mudge
Bizét: Carmen, Chorégies d'Orange, 11. Juli 2015
Carmen ORANGE, Chorégies d’Orange, 7/11/15
DESTINY AT THE TURN OF A CARD was the theme of Louis Désiré’s new production of Bizet’s Carmen for the Chorégies d’Orange, with Mikko Franck conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (seen July 11). This was far from the big fiesta that the nine thousand on the steps of the Roman theater were waiting for. No pretty costumes or festive parades — out with picturesque espagnolerie, in with a clean psychological drama. Not surprisingly, the director was booed for his efforts on opening night and did not take a curtain call for the broadcast performance, but the general feeling was one of disappointment at the lack of arena-style spectacle. The aesthetic of the giant playing cards that littered the stage quickly palled, and although the acting of the soloists looked convincing from a critic’s seat, those perched high up in the Provençal sky did not get many visual thrills.

A few ideas were interesting — Carmen’s donning the toreador’s cape as a wedding bond in the final act, for example — and the relationship of José and Carmen was intently played. Conductor Franck matched Désiré’s production with an understated and lyrical approach; there were no flamboyant gestures or feverish excitement in his leadership but rather a chamber-orchestra approach that almost looked forward to Debussy. There were some lovely individual moments, but also passages that seemed plodding and pedestrian, a situation not helped by the inattentive combined choruses. There is no justification for using the clunking Guiraud recitatives in a new Carmen when spoken dialogue can be kept to a minimum and amplification poses no problem.

The evening was saved by one towering performance — the Don José of Jonas Kaufmann. Among a decent supporting cast, which included a good number of French singers, the tenor’s diction was exceptional and his deep set vocal line quite remarkable. This is a performance in the tradition of the late Jon Vickers, with as many moments of soft singing as heroic outbursts. The flower song was gloriously sung, with a caressing opening as well as a full-voiced pianissimo ascent to the final top B-flat, earning the tenor the longest ovation of the evening. His singing alone would place the tenor among the greats, but his acting of the unstable character was also probing; in the final scene, his José seemed convinced that if he begged Carmen gently enough, and struggled to stay calm, she would capitulate. The character’s murderous loss of self-control was left until the last possible moment, followed by an almost childlike disbelief at what he had done. Opposite such febrile vocal power, Kate Aldrich’s Carmen started at a disadvantage. She was in many ways a perfect Carmen — her singing was well phrased, sexy and unexaggerated, and her French is good. But for such a vast space, greater midrange power was needed, especially to confront this particular José.

Inva Mula, the Micaela, still has a totally reliable upper register capable of floating her music’s high-lying lines with classic beauty, but the production concept allowed her to play nothing beyond milksop innocence — a posture that ill-suits the soprano at this stage of her career. The handsome but anachronistically bearded bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen was ideal vocally in the awkward tessitura of the toreador Escamillo, scoring a brave triumph with a somewhat sullen French public in the nation’s favorite aria.

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