Friday, March 03, 2017

Review: A smoky, sexy "Carmen" at Winter Opera

Benedetta Orsi and the company
Photo: Wylde Brothers Productions
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According to Operabase, during the 2015-2016 seasons Bizet's 1875 tragedy Carmen—a very respectable production of which is on view at Winter Opera this weekend—was the second most-performed opera in the world, edged out only by Verdi's La Traviata. And why not? It has drama, it has some of Bizet's most memorable and therefore most popular melodies and last—but most definitely not least—it has sex.

No, it's not the rolling around, full frontal, direct-to-video type of sex, but when Carmen sings the famous "Habanera" while sinuously gyrating around Don Jose, there's not much room for doubt what everybody is thinking of when they're singing about l'amour. The theatrical vitality of a production of Carmen hinges, in fact, on whether or not the mezzo in the title role can convince the audience that she's so utterly irresistible that she can entice a straight arrow like Don Jose to abandon the military life and become the 18th-century Spanish equivalent of a street thug.

It's a good thing, then, that Winter Opera has Italian mezzo Benedetta Orsi in the title role. With a dark, sensuous voice and a lubricious stage presence, she's totally convincing as the most desirable woman in Seville. Her "Habanera" exudes a smoky sensuality that dominates the stage.

Better yet, she has good chemistry with bass-baritone Neil Nelson as the unabashedly lusty toreador Escamillo. Having previously demonstrated his wide vocal and dramatic range locally in roles a diverse as di Luna in Il Trovatore (Winter Opera) in Tosca and Hagen in Götterdämmerung (Union Avenue Opera), Mr. Nelson adds another feather to his cap here, bringing an engaging swagger to the familiar "Toreador" song in Act II.

"Les tringles des sistres tintaient" from Act II
Photo: Wylde Brothers Productions
Soprano Ellen Hinkle and mezzo Kara Cornell are delighful as Carmen's sisters in crime Frasquita and Mercédès, respectively, and soprano Jacqueline Venable Simmons finds the right amount of vulnerability and sympathy in the somewhat thankless role of Micaëla, whom Don Jose abandons for Carmen. Bass-baritone Robert McNichols, Jr., also makes a strong impression as Don Jose's commanding officer, Zuniga.

Jorge Pita Carreras has a gorgeous tenor voice with an impressive dynamic range but, as was the case with his Manrico in Winter Opera's Il Trovatore a year ago, his acting simply isn't at the same level, resulting in a rather monochromitic portrayal.

Nancy Mayo's chorus sings and acts with real authority, making the many ensemble numbers extremely strong, and Darwin Aquino leads the small but mighty orchestra in a very smart reading of Bizet's score. Director Matthew Haney's blocking and pacing works best when he honors the opera's dramatic realism; less so when they are sttylized and fussy, as in the final confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose.

Performances of Winter Opera's Carmen are Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., March 3 and 5, at the Skip Viragh Center on the Chaminade campus on Lindbergh just north of Plaza Frontenac. The quality and consistency of Winter Opera's productions continue to bet better with each passing year and they deserve your support. For more information:

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