Sparkling 'Carmen' delivers strong finish


POSTED: Sunday, March 01, 2009

Bizet's “;Carmen”; includes everything you want to see in an opera. On the music side: a profusion of memorable arias, duets, larger ensembles, choruses and fun orchestral sections; all set to exciting rhythms, catchy melodies and thunderous percussions and brass. On the dramatic side: a roller coaster of passion, hate, love, defiance, sensuality, jealousy and, ultimately, death.





        » On stage: 4 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

» Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall


» Tickets: $29 to $120


» Call: 596-7858


All the action takes place in the ardent and exotic context of tumultuous 1830s Spain. A nice bubbly cocktail to end this Hawaii Opera Theatre Season.

One of the most-performed operas in the world, “;Carmen”; is a four-act work that is exciting from the beginning. In the first act, alluring girls smoking cigarettes, soldiers and gypsies singing and drinking, stand in contrast to a pure and shy peasant girl; in Act 2 the crescendo continues with some of the most popular dance music performed in Lillas Pastia's tavern, and of any opera at any time.

The drama grows more intense as Bizet and librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy focus on the more confrontational and personal level in following two acts. In the story, adapted from a novel by Prosper Merimee, Cpl. Don Jose falls in love with Carmen(cita), a cigarette factory worker with a strong character. But his wife-to-be is the naive Micaela, who loves the officer. Toreador Escamillo also loves Carmen, to complete the complicated love entanglement.

In Friday's production, the last acts were the best for the main singers. Throughout, mezzo-soprano Leann Sandel Pantaleo grew into the character of Carmen. Her voice became stronger and her lower range, round and dark. That happened also to tenor Richard Crawley in the role of Don Jose. His projection and voice grew more robust as he was overwhelmed by love and rage. Bass-baritone Kelly Anderson's Escamillo rendered the toreador's vocal machismo, especially toward the end, but sometimes it seemed he needed to believe more in his dramatic role.

Soprano Donita Volkwijn was a wonderful Micaela, both in her acting and in her cleverly temperate interpretation. As the only “;voice of reason”; in the opera, Volkwijn kept all her sentiments restrained, as the role demands.

All the vocal ensembles were exquisite from the beginning, especially the female chorus of gypsies. From their first appearance as factory workers, through their first-act fight, to the last “;crowd”; section, they proved to be excellent actresses and singers. Their male counterpart soldiers did a great job balancing the female voices (they were good fighters, too). And faultless was the talented children's chorus: a promising group of future actors/singers.

Particularly delightful was the quintet in the second act that showcased Carmen, her girlfriends Mercedes and Frasuita, and smugglers Dancairo and Remendado. Soprano Mary Chesnut Hicks (Mercedes) never stops surprising us for her extraordinary acting and singing qualities. Her chemistry with excellent soprano Chiho Villasenor (Frasquita) was obviously perfect. It was also great to hear again James Price (Dancairo) and his light tenor voice. Tenor Jeremy Blossey (Remendado) skillfully complemented the balanced quality of the ensemble.

Although it would have been exciting to see more dances and dancers on stage, dancer and choreographer Vanessa Chong, a flamenco expert, did a terrific job. The stage design could have also been a little more amplified and thrilling, but the restrained setting may reflect the budgetary problems we all have these days.

The orchestra played joyfully and dramatically, as required by the score, sometimes a little too heavy on the brass side, but with an overall high energy under the expert baton of Michael Ching.

Valeria Wenderoth has a doctorate in musicology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she also teaches.