Uneven, but sizzling
The Florentine cast of Bizet's most famous opera takes a while to warm up, but then this "Carmen" gets hot.
The Carmen of Georges Bizet’s eponymous opera should be all fire and flash. Her passion cannot wane for an instant. On opening night Friday, the Florentine’s Carmen wasn’t quite so relentless. When it got hot, though, it sizzled.
The story, to say the least, calls for drama. From an acting perspective, mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock, tenor Noah Stewart, baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson and soprano Rena Harms — as Carmen, Don Jose, Escamillo and Micaela — directed by Dean Anthony, were right on point. This is one tense love triangle (or, come to think of it, love square).
But people come to the opera for the singing, and that was off for much of the first half – especially problematic since Carmen’s most famous arias are front-loaded. Babcock’s seguidilla (“Pres de ramparts”) went off great, her voice flickering flirtatiously through the song’s rhythms, but the habanera – the first major aria of the night – was uneven. She was good throughout, but spine-tingling when she was really on.
The greatest missed opportunity of the evening came during St. Clair Nicholson’s “Votre toast,” the famous “Toreador Song.” During the most recognizable segment – the aria’s “chorus,” if you will – it was clear he has the chops to really do some damage. But either a lack of projection on his part or over-exuberance on the orchestra’s drowned out the rest.
Both found the groove later in the evening, notably in their respective duets with Stewart. Carmen has so much singing in this opera that the mezzo must carry the show, and Babcock delivered. As early as the penultimate song of Act II (“Non, tu ne m’aimes pas”), she added powerful flourishes and nuanced delivery that built momentum. By the final duet, “C’est toi! C’est moi!” she was fully in command, crying out with triumphant, beautiful phrases and unmatched emotional intensity.
Stewart’s skill was not limited to being a sounding board. He showed some Act I jitters, most noticeable in a duet with Harms (“Parle-moi de ma mere”), which lacked a warmth and resonance to match his words. By the time he entered in Act II to win Carmen’s love with his “Flower Song,” he’d shaken it off. There, and henceforth, his voice was strong, beautiful and vibrant with vibrato that perfectly suits the love-maddened Don José.
Harms appears for just two of the opera’s four acts. Too bad. Of the four principals, she was the most consistent. From her first entry, her voice was clear and bright, decorated with coquettish ornamentation. It’s one thing to sing high notes loud and bold. It’s another thing to float them sweetly and softly, with little catches in between, as Harms sang the highest notes of “C’est les contrabandiers.” In doing so, she displayed both her skill and Micaela’s emotion.
Worth noting is the rest of the main cast: Peter Volpe as the officer Zuniga and the Florentine’s four studio artists (Carl Frank, Kevin Newell, Alisa Suzanne Jordheim, Kristen DiNinno). Volpe in particular seemed too strong of voice to be utilized so infrequently, and there wasn’t a dull bit to be heard from the remaining four – especially the women, who killed their fortune-telling duet in Act III. The chorus’ acting turned a little cartoonish at times, but it wasn’t enough to leave more than a passing irritation.
Joseph Rescigno conducted the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. There weren’t any severe flaws in the pit, although once or twice early some miscommunications on tempo occurred between conductor and singers. Rescigno reined in whichever problem and settled in more and more. In the second half, Carmen truly blossomed.
The Florentine Opera will perform Carmen, in French with English supertitles again Sunday, Oct. 28 at 2:30 p.m. at Uihlein Hall. Tickets range from $27 to $109 and can be purchased at (414) 291-5700 or the online box office.
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