The good news is that is Musica Viva’s four-performance run of Carmen was completely sold out.
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George Bizet’s opera, precisely because it is well-known to the point of being iconic, presents a challenge. It can all too easily tip into cliché or routine. The challenge takes two forms: the first to keep the music fresh and, second, to bring out the dark psychological drama that underlies the familiar marches, gypsy dances and love duets. The tension of Carmen, why audiences keep on going back to it, lies precisely in this interplay between surface cliché and deeper truth.
Musica Viva’s recent run, as all good performances of Carmen must, displayed precisely this tension, something accomplished in part, whether by accident or design, in subtly updating the personalities of the leads in what was otherwise a production that stuck very much to tradition.
Carla López-Speziale’s Carmen is straight out of central casting.
The opening night Carmen of visiting Mexican mezzo-soprano Carla López-Speziale is straight out of central casting. She sported long raven tresses, large gold hoop earrings and a red flower tucked behind the ear; decked out in her Act IV mantilla, she might have stepped out of period painting. She has a natural, unforced stage presence, even—or perhaps especially—undertaking an orchestral quality performance on the castanets.
But López-Speziale’s Carmen was not here quite the brazen hussy of yore. This is partly due to her voice, a clear, lyrical and apparently effortless mezzo-soprano. But in ensnaring the unfortunate soldier Don José in Act I, this Carmen was more playful than wanton. López-Speziale’s delivered a modern, insouciant, very 21st-century Carmen. If this weren’t 19th-century Seville, her approachable and intimate Carmen might be a YouTube or Instagram celebrity.
Carol Lin: quarter pout, quarter puppy, quarter cobra, quarter coquette…
The closing night Carmen was sung by Hong Kong mezzo-soprano Carol Lin. Hong Kong poet Timothy Kaiser published a poem a while back that went:
girl on the bus
there is a special face
flashed by Hong Kong girls:
quarter pout, quarter puppy, quarter cobra, quarter coquette.
a girl is practising these proportions
with the window
in the seat ahead of me.
just when she has it right
she notices me
Lin displayed just this “quarter pout, quarter puppy, quarter cobra, quarter coquette”: her’s was a Hong Kong Carmen immediately recognizable—if the final applause was any indication—to the audience. It is precisely because Lin is a solid, conscientious performer that her riffs on the character (some edging up to a “parental guidance is advised” level) are possible.
Both performers took the role and—while remaining faithful to its history—gave us Carmens of differing contemporary relevance. One might have been watching two different operas—which is of course why one keeps on going back to Carmen. The two Carmens hardened as the evenings wore on: because both were sung young and start out willful rather than lustful, the dropping of José for the toreador Escamillo came across less as whim than as a gradual maturing, a matter of preferring the man to the boy. When José’s superior tells Carmen that she has chosen poorly in taking the soldier over the officer, he is right: José is callow and conflicted. Escamillo—portrayed here by Ricardo Rivera and Sammy Chien—may be brash and more than a little conceited, but he is comfortable in his own skin and knows who he is.
But Carmen’s greater personal fulfillment—brought into focus in this production by a scene atypically interpolated into the final entr’acte which had Carmen running to Escamillo’s dressing room before that final bullfight—comes tinged with ever darker shadow.
Kingman Lo has a talent for unearthing the exciting young singer.
The opening night Don José was Mexican tenor Luís Chapa, whom audiences remembered from last year’s Il Trovatore. Mexico must have one of world’s highest per capita production rates of international-class singers, and Chapa is the real deal: he wears his heart on his sleeve and his voice fills the hall. His performance was perhaps the most rooted in tradition, hardly surprising since he has sung the role more than one hundred times around the world and has immersed himself in José’s backstory—clear in Prosper Merimée’s original novel but only hinted at in the opera—as someone formally destined for the priesthood. There is a lot going on under the surface in this portrayal, and when it boils over, the violence bubbles up from a troubled soul.
Musica Viva’s Kingman Lo has an apparent talent for unearthing the exciting young singer: this year’s discovery was American tenor Alok Kumar. José, it must be remembered, is a raw recruit with little experience of the wider world, and so Kumar played him, displaying all the (misplaced) confidence and vulnerability of youth. Kumar’s expressive voice evoked everything from wide-eyed wonder to sullen defensiveness. If Lin’s Carmen came via Hong Kong, then this Don José came via New York: in gesture and body-language, he brought a touch of West Side Story to Bizet, the irony being that this Tony lets his Maria—Micaëla—get away from him.
If the music he gave her is any indication, Bizet might have well have had a soft spot for Micaëla. Carmen’s evident attractions aside, José really should have known better—after all, his mother told him so—and married Micaëla instead of running after Carmen. This production took advantage of Hong Kong’s ever-deepening pool of operatic talent, especially among female singers, to cast Micaëla strongly. Colette Lam’s portrayal was the one we are used to: the innocent country girl who is much put upon, yet remains faithful throughout. Louise Kwong, however, invoked a firmness in the lower passages for a thoroughly modern Micaëla and one who has obviously seen José for what he is. She tells him off before dragging him away to see his mother one last time before she dies.
These strengths of both technique and characterization carried through to Carmen’s gypsy sidekicks of Mercédès and Frasquita—sung by the twin duos of Samantha Chong and Joyce Wong, and Melody Sze and Jessica Ng—supporting but vitally important roles as foils to Carmen’s deepening fatalism. As pedantic as it sounds, French diction matters as much in these roles as in the leads: when things don’t sound right, they don’t sound right. Here, they sounded right, which allowed individual character development and differentiation: linking arms, the trio made a gypsy “Sex in the City” tableau.
The production itself was largely traditional: a sepia-toned Seville, brightened by colorful gypsy costumes, flags, lanterns and troops of children. Innovation was subtle: contrary to the realism of the other Acts, the oppressive atmosphere of the Act III mountain camp was evoked by hanging large diamonds of worn denim as a backdrop. And the scene interpolated into the entr’acte was matched by one in the overture prefiguring José’s execution.
Bizet’s music can slide into summer orchestral pop if one isn’t careful: conductor Lio Kuokman brought out the subtler tones and rhythms reminding us why Carmen is great, not just good, music. The choruses were strong and the ensembles well-matched.
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The bad news is that the performances were so different that those who attended only once meant missing something different and interesting in the others. Lo gives the performers considerable latitude, so while Musica Viva’s productions are characterized by palpable chemistry between the performers—they sing to each other rather than at the audience—the interaction between different combinations of singers give rise to different interpretations, the finale being a particular case in point. Chapa’s José stood over Carmen after stabbing her, almost defiantly, before sinking to his knees. Kumar’s Carmen died in his arms before he passed a hand over her eyes.
Audience reaction was warm to the point of being affectionate. Curtain calls could easily have gone for many more minutes had not the performers discreetly waved goodbye.