Critically beset for its relative neglect of the French repertory over its 12-year history, Peter Hemmings’ L.A. Opera has attempted a grand jetee back into public reclame with back-to-back productions of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” and Massenet’s “Werther” to get things moving again at the Music Center. Actually, the company had taken on “Carmen,” best-known of all the Gallic legacy, once before, in the 1991-92 season; it didn’t quite work then, either.
Playing the title role in 1992 was the relatively unknown Denyce Graves, at the start of a career that has since flourished mightily; the Carmen this time is the immensely popular Jennifer Larmore, in her first stage fling as Bizet’s tragic temptress. (She had sung it in an unstaged version last summer at the Hollywood Bowl.)
The Don Jose in both stagings was, and is, surefire super-tenor Placido Domingo, not too much the worse for wear six years later. The production is from the Washington Opera, which also now claims Domingo as artistic honcho.
Bursting with fire-breathing dramatic confrontations underlined by chartworthy tunes, “Carmen” has survived a vast variety of stagings, of which the L.A. Opera’s latest achieves a not-entirely comfortable middle ground. Swedish director Ann-Margaret Pettersson fills her stage with people, people, people, blending an appropriate turbulence into less-than-appropriate clumsiness. (Most of the cigarette girls in their act-one chorus seem to be holding their cigs for the first time ever.)
Designer Lennart Mork’s multilevel sets for the first and last acts create problems; the sight of the enraged but, let’s say, portly Domingo coping with a ladder en route to murdering his errant sweetheart is not one of opera’s more endearing spectacles. However, the act-two set, a rip-off of John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo,” with Alan Burrett’s lighting casting shadows on a dusky wall, is a beauty.
To the ears, at least, Domingo’s Don Jose remains a force of nature, flawed only at one moment by an unwise (but quickly abandoned) attempt at the prescribed pianissimo ending for the “Flower Song,” but otherwise highly representative of what the crowd had paid to hear.
Larmore’s Carmen, however, proves somewhat more problematical. The voice, creamy and somewhat on the lighter end of the mezzo-soprano spectrum, is one of life’s lovelier sounds, proven by her spectacular career so far in the Handel/Rossini belcanto repertory.
Neither that sound, however, nor the clean, classic beauty of her stage presence says much about the role she now takes on for the first time in her career; it’s a Carmen gorgeously etched, in all the wrong colors.
Local boy Richard Bernstein, despite a drab get-up and an awful hairdo, continues his upward rise with his rafter-rattling Escamillo. The evening’s major disappointment, however, was the pale and hard-voiced Micaela of Italian soprano Carla Maria Izzo in what might, granted, be deemed opera’s most useless major role.
Debuting conductor Bertrand de Billy’s pacing was, in a word, adequate.
It all could, and should, have been better.