A ‘Carmen’ Production with Less Allure Than Its Celebrated Title Character

The opera Carmen, which nearly all opera-goers know in its luxurious grand opera format, is not the same Carmen that Georges Bizet composed in 1875 for the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Bizet’s Carmen had spoken dialogue that made the work closer to the style of American musical theater.

Pacific Lyric Association’s recent production of Carmen at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre approached Bizet’s original format by replacing the dialogue with concise English-language narration that opened each act. With the company’s regular condensation of the score, this Carmen clocked in at a few minutes over two hours. This take on Bizet’s classic opera reminded me of Peter Brook’s Bizet adaptation La Tragédie de Carmen, which San Diego Opera presented with much success at the Balboa Theatre in March, 2017.

With a stronger cast, Pacific Lyric Association could have come close to the taut realism of Peter Brook’s approach. Anna Pflieger’s alluring, creamy mezzo-soprano gave her feisty Carmen the vocal authority the role demands, and I appreciated her unfailingly supple phrasing of Bizet’s sinuous themes. Both of Micaëla’s arias benefited from soprano Chelsea Seener’s plush, shimmering vocal production and probing emotional revelation.

Unfortunately, the male leads fell far below the musical standards of Pflieger and Seener. Tenor Alexis Alfaro as Don José sounded like a chorus member drafted into the role in a last-minute emergency. His modest voice lacked the bold, rich color that Bizet’s ardent vocal lines require for this passionate lover, and the orchestra overpowered Alfaro all too easily. The role of Escamillo, the macho toreador who easily steals Carmen from Don José, demands a baritone of vocal command and imposing stature, qualities not evident in baritone Carlos Oliva. In the printed program, Oliva is listed as a founder of Pacific Lyric Association as well as one of the company’s major financial backers. Could these factors have influenced his casting as Escamillo?

In the comprimario roles of Frasquita and Mercédès, Kymberlie Joyce and Kelsey Fahy sang confidently and gave ample emotional support to their sister-in-crime Carmen. The dozen chorus members did their best to fill out Bizet’s crowd scenes, although their occasional sketchy ensemble singing proved a distraction. Gabriel Reoyo Pazos’ frantic stage direction of the crowd scenes did not help, of course, although his direction of scenes with two or three principals displayed more focus. Carmen’s demeanor in the First Act should have been more seductive than petulant, in my estimation of the librettists’ intentions. Colorful period costumes by Diana Rodriguez pleased the eye, and the uncredited backdrops neatly defined the location of each act.

Alexandra Keegan conducted the orchestra with poised assurance, as well as a keen appreciation of the composer’s bold orchestrations. The orchestra proved to be the most reliable component of this production, and kudos to the brass players for their well-tuned command of Bizet’s brilliant array of splashy flourishes and soaring obbligatos.

Pacific Lyric Association produced Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre in San Diego October 21 to 23, 2022. The performance of October 21 was attended for this review.

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