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Boston Lyric Opera’s Carmen on the Common; plus New England String Ensemble

"Are you ready for some opera?", Boston Lyric Opera general director Janice Mancini Del Sesto asked the audience before BLO’s two free Boston Common performances of Georges Bizet’s Carmen last weekend. The resounding "YES!" told the big story. Official crowd estimates ranged from 50,000 to 60,000 people!

Everyone in the music business knows there’s a large audience for opera, but an opera is so expensive to produce that even the high ticket prices come nowhere near covering the cost. Most people who want to go — because they love opera, or are just curious about it — can’t afford three-figure prices (this year BLO has a four-opera subscription in the last rows of the Shubert Theatre balcony for only $122, though a subscription for the very best seats goes as high as $608). BLO raised a million dollars for these two free Carmen performances, and it made a considerable outreach effort. Just as impressive as the size of the crowd was its diversity in ethnicity and age (what’s the last time you saw so many people under 30 at a classical-music event?). A multicultural (Hispanic, Asian, African-American) and largely youthful cast didn’t hurt, and neither did the considerable free publicity (the Boston Globe, WGBH, WBZ, Channel 38, and WMJX were among the sponsors). Legislators who want to cut funding for the arts had better take note.

It also didn’t hurt that the opera in question is one of the most deservedly popular in the repertoire. Carmen has a gripping plot, sexy and violent, plus fast action, one of the world’s great characters, and a non-stop outpouring of exciting and unforgettable tunes. It works as a vehicle for an inspired singing actress like Maria Callas, or Regine Crespin (in Sarah Caldwell’s 1983 production), or Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (in BLO’s 1994 production), yet it can also survive clichés about sexy Gypsy women in low-cut red dresses, with their hands on their swinging hips, or a death scene in which Carmen pulls down a large curtain. It can survive absurd staging — BLO artistic director Leon Major had this Carmen lifting her red skirt and washing her thighs in a public square in Seville! It can even survive a terrible English translation. Here Carmen expressed her philosophy of love in the famous "Habanera" with "Its whims and moods are thousand-fold." The Toreador made his play for Carmen by telling her, "When I face the bull, I want your name on my lips." And Carmen dumped Don José by announcing, "It’s better thus." Has any recognizable human being ever talked like this?

Yet unlike many Boston Lyric Opera productions, this Carmen was actually fun. Twenty-six-year-old mezzo-soprano Jossie Pérez seemed to be having a great time with the title role. She had little subtlety (this is a Carmen who, after all, bathes in public, lifts her dress, and spreads her legs at every opportunity). Hers was not a heroic or philosophical or tragic Carmen (though all of these qualities are in the music) but pure spitfire. Yet she had a lot of energy — both melodramatic (as when Carmen is reading the fatal cards) and comic (the biggest laugh of the evening came from the Lucille Ball contortion of disgust she aimed at Don José when he decided to return to his dying mother). She has an attractive, brightly focused timbre, with impressive flexibility, though the amplification didn’t make her high notes things of beauty. Above all, she had thorough command of the stage. She’s off to more than a good start.

Tenor John Bellemer was an earnest and, finally, driven if not demonic José. He could handle the lyricism of the "Flower Song" and the murderous outbursts. Baritone Robert Honeysucker, a Boston treasure, sang a deliciously insinuating Toreador Song with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in the parks last summer, but here, costumed like a thug, with trenchcoat and droopy fedora (the production seemed inconsistently updated to the 1930s), or, worse, in torero tights and a bullfighter hat that made him look as if he had Mickey Mouse ears, he seemed too hampered by his get-up to be as seductive as he is by nature. Still, he sang with power and subtlety. Soprano Guiping Deng was a coyer-than-necessary Micaela, but she sang her aria with touching sweetness. Julianna Dempsey, Melina Pineda, Fred Furnari, Alan Schneider, and David Giuliano were all characterful and vocally attractive in smaller roles.

Music director Stephen Lord kept everything moving briskly and dancing nimbly, even in the restrained Gypsy Dance. This was one of his best efforts, and an improvement over the many dragging tempos in his 1994 version. The music had at least as much color as the stage action, and the few cuts were inoffensive, though perhaps unnecessary. For the first few minutes, you couldn’t hear the woodwinds over the brasses, but the sound engineers soon came to the rescue, and the orchestra, dimly visible behind a stage scrim, was in excellent form.

Three-quarters of Carmen takes place outdoors, so in many ways this opera is ideal for an open-air production. Large TV screens flanked Erhard Rom’s wide two-tiered stage, adding English subtitles under the live action (in case you couldn’t believe your ears when you heard the English translation?). The TV images captured my focus more than any of the action stage center, where the actual singers seemed dwarfed. And since their voices were emanating from their TV mouths, that’s where I tended to look. It was a little confusing when I tried to find on stage the image I had just seen on TV. Some of the camera work, though (superimposition, fades), was as artistic as it was competent.

Will this event make anyone feel less intimidated by opera? It might. Will it lead to more ticket sales to the Lyric’s subscription season? Maybe a few. Will people unfamiliar with opera now think of it as a great art form? Unlikely. But would 100,000 people come back for another free performance next year? It would probably take a blizzard or a tidal wave to keep them away.

SUSAN DAVENNY WYNER’S New England String Ensemble opened its Cambridge season at Sanders Theatre Sunday with a thoughtfully constructed, beautifully performed, and finally thrilling program. Called "From Darkness to Light," it began with a C.P.E. Bach string symphony in G that veered between jittery musical lightning bolts and something more conventionally settled (Davenny labeled it "ebullient and quixotic"), then leapt forward to Christopher Rouse’s 1990 Concerto per corde, a gloomy homage to Shostakovich, comfortingly comfortless, with a fast middle movement that program annotator Steven Ledbetter compared to Bernard Herrmann’s violent string writing for Psycho. After intermission, the mood lightened with Carl Nielsen’s Little Suite in A minor (even his Opus 1, from 1888, with all its debt to Brahms, sounds like no one but the Danish master himself), with its infectious middle-movement waltz.

Wyner led these all with her customary élan, economy, harmonic clarity, rhythmic vigor, and interpretive insight. Every directorial gesture tells: a head tilt, a sway of the hip, a lift of the elbow. But there’s nothing artificial — you can hear each gesture in the gorgeous and elegant responses she gets from the orchestra.

And just as each piece built beautifully to its appropriate climax, so the entire program built up to daddy J.S. Bach’s most spectacular and virtuosic cantata, No. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! ("Exult in God in all lands!"). How nice to hear a concert that actually ended with Bach even though he was the earliest composer on the bill. One of Wyner’s favorite guests, soprano Dominique Labelle, was in magnificent voice, whether singing with dizzying celebratory display or touching inward warmth. There wasn’t a note she didn’t nail. (You can hear her on NESE’s new two-CD album Live in Concert, singing Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations.) And young Jeffrey Work’s trumpet obbligatos, from the trill that ended the first aria to the bravura closing of the final Alleluia, matched Labelle all the way, as did the exceptionally supportive continuo of organist Frances Conover Fitch, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, and bass Susan Hagen. In the contest between Darkness and Light, no question which one came out on top.

Issue Date: September 26 - October 3, 2002
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