Tom’s Review: Smoking Opera Pacific “Carmen”, March 8, 2007

Despite the Surgeon General’s warning about cigarettes, the recent production of Bizet’s “Carmen” at Opera Pacific, smoked Orange County. As one who has seen this numero uno opera for paying the bills countless wonderful times (including an August 2006 performance in Santa Fe, a link to whose review occurs at the bottom of this page), it had not been my intention to “do” a review of this performance. But when a performance knocks your socks off and the audience roars in delight, you sit up and take notice.

This was a performance totally distinguishable from more routine readings of “Carmen”. Milena Kitic was a luscious Carmen, worthy of any great opera house in the world. Playing Carmen as an enthusiastic consumer of those cigarette factory smokies, she blew away Orange County as she exhaled smoke into the surprised, but enthusiastic, audience. Her factory co-workers, however, carried unlit cigarettes (as is now the custom at the San Francisco Opera).

[Below: Milena Kitic as Carmen; edited image, based on a production photograph.]

Here was the elegant, glamorous, flirting Carmen we all hope to see and hear. I suspect that audiences in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Berlin, London et al. will soon see her do this role – they should. This Carmen had no long-stemmed rose in her teeth, but she was masterful with castanets while dancing with Don Jose in Act II. (She was also excellent as last June’s Opera Pacific Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida”, which I reviewed elsewhere on this website.)

Her Don Jose was Chad Shelton, who sang the role last year at Houston Grand Opera. His was a very formal portrayal of a good soldier, with passionate singing at all the right moments, responding to the booming basso Zuniga, played by Christian Van Horn (a Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals winner, who recently graduated with a Masters from Yale University).

Laquita Mitchell was our polished and tear-jerking Micaela (her debut role at New York City Opera), having come from Houston Grand Opera and Manhattan’s celebrated School of Music. She recently graced Washington National Opera’s stage as Clara in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, a role she is scheduled to perform also at Los Angeles Opera.

For me, it is singing of the Toreador Song that determines whether or not the performance is successful. Mexico’s Luis Ledesma, as Escamillo (who has sung the role in Graz, Austria and is engaged to sing it next year in Austin, Texas) lavished in the role, obviously enjoying it, as did the ecstatic Orange County audience.

Orange County was treated to world class flamenco dancing by New Mexico’s Lili del Castillo, atop the Act II saloon tables. Herself a veteran of many opera and zarzuela productions, she called to mind the style and elegance of Santa Fe’s wondrous Maria Benitez, who often graces the Santa Fe Opera’s stage.

Although the production time-shifted the action to Generalissimo Franco’s Spain, the sets from debuting scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez seemed very traditional, splashed with Spain’s warm colors. A terrific corps of highly motivated kids brilliantly mimicked the actions of the soldiers, who were clad in black jackboots and black SS-style uniforms. The town’s menfolk were costumed in black mob-style suits with Frank Sinatra-esque pork-pie black hats. Opera Pacific’s artistic director and principal conductor John DeMain (since 1998!) superbly conducted his well-rehearsed orchestra.

Opera Pacific’s latest success further highlights the accumulation of operatic resources in Southern California, with the revival of the idea of a Southern California Verdi festival now centered in Santa Barbara, the condensed performances of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” at Long Beach Opera, and operatic works being presented at the opulent Cerritos center. Situated between the now celebrated opera companies of Los Angeles and San Diego, Opera Pacific, residing in elegant cultural edifices built on a former beanfield (host to last October’s Kirov/Mariinsky festival), suggests that Southern California has indeed become a fertile field for opera.


For William’s review of a recent San Francisco Opera performance of “Carmen”, see Halevy Triumphs in Ponnelle “Carmen” – S. F. December 3, 2006

For Tom’s review of the Santa Fe Opera production of “Carmen”, see Tom on Santa Fe Opera’s 50 Years: Carmen, Flute, Cendrillon