By Robert Croan
Miami-based Florida Grand Opera presents four operas each season, with five performances of each work in that city’s Arsht Center, alternating two casts in the leading roles. The company repeats some of its productions – this season, three of the four – in Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center with casts chosen from the Miami performances.
In the case of Bizet’s Carmen, which played at Broward on Thursday and again tonight, the originally listed performer of the title role was replaced on short notice by Argentine-born, American-trained mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, a better-known artist than either of the Miami protagonists.
Mack, who made her Royal Opera (Covent Garden) debut this season and will debut at the Metropolitan Opera in February, has the makings of a first-rate Carmen: a deep mezzo voice with a distinctive, quite personal timbre, a feisty stage presence, excellent French diction and the musical intelligence to shade the words meaningfully. If she did not quite take over the stage in the present production, some of the fault must go to director Bernard Uzan, who too often allowed her to disappear among the supporting characters and chorus.
Still, Mack made a forceful initial impression with the “Habanera,” addressing her melodies to the audience as much as to the Don José (Rafael Davila) and his fellow soldiers on stage. She was even more effective in the “Seguidilla,” a few minutes later, staged to show Carmen’s control over Don José, even though he is supposedly her captor, holding the rope but actually tied up in it himself.
In Act 2, the mezzo opened with a credible gypsy dance, abetted by the single male dance soloist, Edwin Suarez and three female dancers. In her seductive private dance for Don José, however, the singer was surprisingly tame and lacking in the requisite sizzle. Her best vocalism – and her most concentrated theatrical intensity – was in the third act card scene, where Mack’s vibrant middle voice and guttural low tones proved chilling in their sinister foreboding of the opera’s denouement.
Bizet wrote Carmen as an opéra-comique, which does not denote a comedy but rather what we would think of as a Broadway-style show with spoken dialogue in between the musical numbers. After the composer’s death, larger opera houses used a grand opera version with musical recitative replacing the dialogue, but the original has become equally popular, and as used in FGO’s production with clear translation in supertitles, the dialogue enhanced the swiftness and immediacy of the drama.
Uzan’s staging was inconsistent, generally traditional but at times jarringly at odds with the libretto. It was effective to show Carmen’s body gruesomely dragged off during the fate motive music of the opera’s Prelude, but made little sense to bring all the main characters back in the final moments to watch Carmen’s death. Micaëla’s scene with the soldiers in Act 1 was handled timidly, avoiding suggestions of the men attempting to abuse the innocent country girl.
And it was a miscalculation, after presenting the already lengthy first two acts without intermission, to follow the brilliant (and well-realized) closing ensemble with an anticlimactic attachment of the Prelude to Act 3, used as background music for a weak pantomime showing Carmen and Don José making love.
Ramon Tébar’s musical direction was subtle and flexible, sensitive to Bizet’s colorful instrumental details and shadings from loud to soft, and the cast was excellent right down the line. A particular highlight was the Act 2 smugglers’ quintet, in which Mack’s gypsy heroine was joined in admirably integrated ensemble work by supporting artists Elena Galvan, Courtney Miller, Benjamin Taylor and Dominick Corbacio.
Rafael Davila was more country boy than romantic lover, but he conveyed the character’s fall from innocence, and sang with ringing high notes as well as the ability to spin lovely sustained soft tones when required. His flower aria was deservedly a showstopper.
As Micaëla, the hometown girl who always seems to have walked into the wrong opera, Hailey Clark looked wholesome and vocalized her music with a bright, penetrating sound. Ryan Kuster was a properly handsome torero, his resonant if not large baritone even-voiced from the top to bottom of the scale. Baritones Nicholas J. Ward (Morales) and Alex Soare (Zuniga) filled out the cast with competence.