Review: L.A. Opera's 'Carmen' means business as Domingo adds sizzle

Summer's over.

That may not be a sigh of relief in all quarters, but you could almost hear one Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler. Los Angeles Opera General Director Plácido Domingo was in the pit to conduct the season opening on this first night of fall. He began by racing through the opening of Bizet's "Carmen."


FOR THE RECORD:
"Carmen": A review in the Sept. 23 Calendar section of Los Angeles Opera's "Carmen" identified the chorus as being singers of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The chorus was the L.A. Opera Chorus. —

Two months ago the 72-year tenor and conductor had been recuperating in Madrid from a pulmonary embolism that had required emergency hospitalization and a month's recovery. Now he's back in thoroughbred mode.

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In the audience was the company's irrepressibly energetic music director, James Conlon. He had just flown in from New York, where he is currently rehearsing Benjamin Britten's "Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Metropolitan Opera. A month ago, he was recuperating from emergency surgery for diverticulitis. Looking fit, he said at intermission that he had a new lease on life.

And maybe that's the best way to look at L.A. Opera's current incarnation of "Carmen." The company is still on its own cautious recovery course, regaining economic strength and keeping ambitions in check. Bringing back Emilio Sagi's 15-year-old production from Madrid's Teatro Real, first seen here in 2004 (Domingo conducted) and repeated in 2008, didn't make for a particularly noteworthy season opener, but it also didn't tax the company or its artistic leaders.

Fortunately the company could at least afford a first-rate cast.

We're still stuck with Sagi's production, Gerardo Trotti's massive traditional sets and Jesús del Pozo's exaggerated costumes. The current director, Trevore Ross, sticks to the script, which means retaining Sagi's occasional curious impulses, such as allowing a drag queen proprietor of Lillas Pastia's tavern to momentarily upstage Carmen.

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But mainly this is a straightforward "Carmen," with the effective novelty of treating the gypsy protagonist as a subtle seductress. And Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon proved an unusually searching and intelligent Carmen, secure in her beauty and with seemingly better things to do than flaunt it. She doesn't need to attract men, she needs men to live up to her. They never do. She dies not so much a victim of jealously, stabbed by a jilted lover, but a victim of her own high standards.

Carmen's most famous numbers in the opera are based on Spanish dance such as a habanera and seguidilla, meant to bend an upright soldier, Don José, to her will. A flexible singer who trusts the music, has a pleasingly liquid sense of phrasing and makes everything she sings sound natural and easy, Bardon doesn't require movement to radiate sexuality. She does dance a gypsy song, but it is her eyes and facial expressions that tell you what business she means.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich's initially stilted Don José is easy prey. Just as easy is the charismatic baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's Escamillo, the bullfighter. Bardon shows a kind impatience with both — not out of boredom or need (although there is some of both), but more frustration that they cannot supply her with something deeper, dismissive of their preening egos.

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That backfires, of course, when Don José stabs her, but in the moment of murder, Jovanovich is finally fully alive. He sang strongly throughout but only here reveals real conviction. There was a sense, thrillingly realized, that this killing was finally the lovers' sexual fulfillment.

Pretty Yende, a splendid young soprano from South Africa and prize-winner of Domingo's Operalia contest two years ago, was a robust Micaëla in her L.A. Opera debut. As Frasquita, Korean soprano Hae Ji Chang made the most convincing of Carmen's smuggler crew. Russian bass Valentin Anikin, a gaunt Lt. Zuniga, was a bit too easily dispatched.

A practical conductor, Domingo emphasized percussive accents and full-bodied lyrical sweep. He may not have given an ideal amount of attention to the French instrumental finesse in Bizet's score, but he knows how Spanish rhythms go, how to make Bizet's terrific tunes sizzle and the ins and outs of egging-on singers.

Some of the vocal ensembles, especially when Domingo was eagerly moving things along, were touch and go. But the LA Opera Chorus and Los Angeles Children's Chorus handled their busy stage activities with confidence.

How this will play out through the run is anybody's guess. There will be several cast changes, and Grant Gershon will conduct half of the six remaining performances.

Then it will be, I hope, time to finally retire this stale "Carmen" production and think about something special for next year. The company can now afford to. The good news of the summer was a $7-million donation from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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'Carmen'

Where: Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, downtown L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, Oct., 1 and 4; 2 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 6

Cost: $19 to $325

Info: (213) 972-8001 or http://www.laopera.com