Opera Review: Washington National Opera’s ‘Carmen’

Opera music

Isabel Leonard in the lead role of Carmen. Photo by Scott Suchman.

By Winnie Dreisonstok

The Washington National Opera presented “Carmen”, one of the mainstays of the operatic repertoire. On the themes of love, jealousy and destiny, the work of Georges Bizet is both universal and sublime. It is, quite simply, men and women at their best and at their worst. The Washington National Opera has followed the overall plot faithfully, but also incorporates a few surprises. For example, at the beginning of the opera, we see a silhouette of Don José in prison, foreshadowing later events.

…directed brilliantly by Francesca Zambello.

A free-spirited Carmen, full of a passion that knows no bounds, ensnares the heart of Army Corporal Don José. However, she ultimately rejects him for a flashier man, driving Don José to a mad passion that forever changes his life forever. He deserts the army, leaves his former fiancé and enters the life of exile from society.

Michael Fabiano, the tenor playing Don José, plays his role to perfection. With a beautiful voice, his young corporal is mean-looking, serious, passionate and easily fooled – the perfect “everybody”. He is chosen almost at random by Carmen, who throws her famous flower at him. “That flower hit me like a bullet!” he said, falling in love with the stormy woman.

Isabel Leonard embodies Carmen’s many and varied moods, which range from angry to flirtatious, irritable to proud, and intriguing to charming. She captures all of these moods, the subtlety changing from moment to moment, while singing beautifully some of “Carmen’s” most famous music – the Carmen entrance and the Habanera.

Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Greene plays bullfighter Escamillo. Filling the room with a grandiose stage presence, he enters on a white horse and brilliantly sings the famous song of the toreador. “Micaela’s Air,” sung by the woman Don José left for Carmen, was poignantly performed by soprano Vanessa Vasquez. Audiences responded enthusiastically to the chorus of street children and the pageantry of costumes associated with bullfighting in the opera’s final act.

The ensemble was simple, almost spartan, emphasizing an earth-brown color palette and used in multiple ways. It depicted the exterior of a cigarette factory; the tavern of Lillas Tastia; the hiding place of a thief; and the exterior of a bullfighting ring where the denouement of the opera takes place. It also served as a backdrop for the cast shadows of the dancers, expanding the spaces of the stage to give the effect of an even larger cast. Yet at other times it suggested the claustrophobic inevitability of fate, as death is read into the cards by Carmen again and again.

The exotic orchestral color brings the production to life with its Spanish and Roma flavors. The conductor, Evan Rogister, drew very effectively on the Spanish orchestral momentum as well as traditional opera music. This production was brilliantly directed by Francesca Zambello. Audience members enjoyed many famous melodies that have become some of the most famous pieces in classical music. Bizet’s catchy melodies such as “Seguidilla: Near the Ramparts of Seville” and “Les tringles des sistres tinkled” made this show a pleasant evening of entertainment, even outside of the heart-pounding plot of “Carmen.”

Duration: approximately three hours with a 25-minute intermission.

“Carmen” ran May 14-28, 2022, presented by Washington National Opera at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For more information on the upcoming season WNO 2022-2023, please Click here.

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