By Janelle Gelfand
Enquirer staff writer
Small wonder it is considered the greatest opera ever written. Bizet's Carmen has some of the most gorgeous music ever heard on the opera stage.
The tale of the gypsy who seduces men and then discards them continues to seduce audiences, as it did Saturday night to Cincinnati Opera's full house at Music Hall.
It was a thrill to hear Richard Leech, possibly America's finest tenor, singing the jilted corporal Don Jose with such fervor and stunning vocal power. And as Escamillo, Uruguayan-born bass Erwin Schrott was strapping and charismatic - everything a bullfighter should be.
In the title role, soprano Catherine Malfitano stepped in a few months ago to sing her first Carmen, replacing a pregnant Denyce Graves. Despite Malfitano's tour-de-force last season in the Triple Bill - Poulenc's La Voix Humaine, Weill's Seven Deadly Sins and William Bolcom's Medusa - she was not entirely convincing as the gypsy seductress.
Her Carmen had attitude - but no sizzle. She sang her "Habaņera" standing in bucket of water, washing out her socks. Although defiant and brave - she walked into Don Jose's knife at the end - we missed that exotic, sexy creature with a voluptuous voice to match.
She sang forcefully and with richness of expression, but lacked a sultry lower register. Her finest moment vocally was in Act 3, when she drew the "death" card and sang with riveting drama that the cards never lie.
A strong cast and Bizet's rich musical score made up for lack of onstage chemistry. Leech, whose magnificent tenor dominated, poured out emotion in his Act 2 "Flower Song," a moment that stood still.
The crowd of 3,135 cheered Schrott in his famous "Toreador Song," which he sang with swagger. And French Canadian soprano Frederique Vezina delivered a deeply affecting performance as Micaela.
In supporting roles, Alaina Brown (Frasquita) and Hae-Jung Shin (Mercedes) were standouts, as were the smugglers Mark Panuccio (Remendado) and Paul Kreider (Dancairo). Gustav Andreassen made a fine Zuniga, and Jeremy Alan Kelly was a convincing corporal.
But the production was problematic. Staged by James Robinson and designed by Allen Moyer for Cincinnati Opera and four other companies, it was set as a "play-within-a-play." It opened on a crammed, one-dimensional Seville square, with barely room for the cigarette girls to brawl, and played out in a ruined theater, which substituted for the tavern, the smuggler's mountain lair and the bullring.
The chorus sang wonderfully all evening, but there was little pageantry. The entrance of the toreadors was a bizarre, slow-motion ballet, and the flamenco dancers didn't have much life.
Much of the evening's success goes to conductor Stephane Deneve, who propelled the orchestra exuberantly and combined nuance with splashy color.
Carmen continues at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Music Hall. Tickets are available by calling 241-2742, or going to www.cincinnatiopera.org.
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