Ah, “Carmen,” indestructible, ever-familiar “Carmen.” With the possible exception of “Porgy And Bess,” there are more hit tunes in this opera than just about any other. Possibly as a result, most conductors are merely content to let Bizet’s jukebox play itself, leaving the initiative to the singers and whatever screwball staging the director has in mind. But tell that to young Gustavo Dudamel, who in making his North American operatic debut Sunday night, taught us all something about how a conductor can pull “Carmen” out of the slog of routine into something really special and even thrilling. One expected it to be good, given Dudamel’s effusive Latin temperament and background. But one didn’t expect it to be that good.
As classical concerts go, Dudamel’s name and fame made it a big draw — although with an official head count of 12,831, not nearly a sellout at the 17,374-seat Hollywood Bowl. Also, this was a concert performance of the opera, and it felt like one — concentrating on the symphonic sweep of the music with only minimal stabs at stage movement by the singers, several small cuts in the score, and generalized lighting adjustments.
Yet within this somewhat formal presentation, Dudamel could get inside this miraculous score and make it burst forth. He obviously has the music in his bones, often singing along with his cast and chorus. His attention to detail was amazing; every phrase and accent was molded in an individual way and fused together so that they always clicked — nothing fussy or indulgent. He gave the exuberant passages a solid rhythmic foundation — or in the Act III Smugglers Chorus, a firm bass grounding — and he could make the lyrical ones swim and shimmer. And he had the taste to know when to underplay, like the final verismo duet between Carmen and Don José.
In watching Dudamel on the video screen from the front, it was a revelation to see how he communicated with the enthused, responsive Los Angeles Philharmonic — with a nudge of his baton or fingers, a twinkle in his eye, the slightest application of body English. The Phil reportedly only had four rehearsals — which is a lot for a Bowl concert — but the orchestra sounded as if it had been preparing for a month.
In other words, Dudamel was the show, and he nearly, but not quite, drew all the attention away from his evenly-matched international cast.
Vienna-born mezzo-soprano Natascha Petrinsky skillfully gave us the outlines of a traditional vamp-turned-existential-fatalist Carmen; Korean tenor Yonghoom Lee made for a relatively lyrical Don José; Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou seemed a bit too dark-voiced for the sweet, if sturdy, country girl Micaela; American baritone Kyle Ketelsen constituted a low-key, self-assured Escamillo.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale sang superbly; in Act IV’s bullfight scene, their music director Grant Gershon led them as they faced the rear to simulate an offstage crowd.
Given the restrictions of this concert format, one could only speculate how a fully-staged production would have taken the dramatic shackles off this cast. Yet it was enough to hear the score played with a brilliance and zest that you may never encounter in any opera house.