Tom’s Review: A Sultry, Voluptuous “Carmen” Concludes San Diego Opera’s Best Season Ever – May 14, 2011

Concluding the very sensational 2011 San Diego Opera Season is the all time operatic winner in every opera house world-wide – Bizet’s marvelous crowd-pleaser (and revenue-enhancer) “Carmen”, which has graced San Diego’s stage many times, always to huge applause.

As expected, the house was sold out and the audience highly enthusiastic about the sun-dappled production with its impressive cast – at the opera’s conclusion rising almost as one for a standing ovation, complete with whistling!

[Below: Morales (Scott Sikon, right) engages Micaela (Talise Trevigne, center) in conversation, as she searches for her boyhood sweetheart among the soldiers; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Is there a soul out there who doesn’t love this piece, as when the kids come marching out on stage mimicking the soldiers, or when she dances atop the tables in the cabaret singing to the hapless Don Jose with the castanets, or when that mucho-macho, resplendant baritone bull fighter Escamillo sings the ripping Toreador song? It’s no exaggeration to say, as does San Diego Opera, that “Carmen” is the quintessential opera!

Of the four prinicpals, two, Richard Leech the Don Jose and Wayne Tigges the Escamillo, were last minute replacements for artists suffering from injury or illness, yet the resulting performance, staged by the savvy stage director Sonja Frisell (herself replacing another stage director only recently) and conducted by the esteemed veteran conductor  Edoardo Mueller, moved forward almost flawlessly.

Mueller conducted with a carefully measured pace, allowing the artists plenty of time to breathe and get acclimated, but he lit up the after-burners in the final confrontation scene between Carmen and Don Jose outside the bull ring, ending with all the stops pullled out.

Surguladze’s Carmen

The Carmen, Nino Surguladze, proved to be an alluring actress, with a sultry mezzo voice. Yet another operatic product of the Republic of Georgia, a country whose entire population is only one and a half times that of San Diego County alone

California has reveled in the opera singers from this former Soviet republic high in the Caucasus. Her Georgian colleagues Nino Machaidze and George Gagnidze have distinguished themselves at the Los Angeles Opera and Lado Ataneli has appeared in starring roles at each of California three major opera companies.

[Below: Carmen (Nino Surguladze) displays interest in Zuniga (Kevin Langan); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Leech’s Don Jose

Lyric/dramatic tenor Richard Leech returns to the house where he first performed the role of Don Jose, replacing the injured Salvatore Licitra, who had to withdraw after rehearsals began. Leech was in his best form – perfectly cast in this role. [For William’s review of Leech’s most recent previous performances in San Diego, see: Tradition and Novelty in San Diego Opera’s New “Cavalleria” – March 22, 2008.]

[Below: Carmen (Nino Surguladze) entices Don Jose (Richard Leech); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Trevigne’s Micaela

The role of Micaela is one of the choice roles in the lyric soprano repertory, and Talise Trevigne’s extraordinarily moving performance of this role for the San Diego Opera is arguably her most important assignment from the standard operatic repertory to date. However, Trevigne’s career has already had a notable milestone, as she created the role of Pip in Heggie’s opera, “Moby Dick”, in a production that will have its San DIego Opera premiere in 2012 (see World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010.)

[Below: Micaela (Talise Trevigne, right) convinces Don Jose (Richard Leech, left) that he must return home to his dying mother; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Tigges’ Escamillo

Wayne Tigges’ career has advanced in the past year as a result of opportunities that have arisen by the withdrawal of originally announced artists from important assignments. Most notably, he sang the role of the Four Villains last summer at Santa Fe Opera in the authentic version of Offenbach’s 1885 opera “Tales of Hoffman”, that was never performed before the 21st century (see William’s review at Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010.)

Tigges reveled in his role as the bullfighter, to an exulting audience.

[Below: Escamillo (Wayne Tigges, center, in suit of lights) escorts Carmen (Nino Surguladze) in the procession to the bull ring; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The remaining cast consists of a number of artists most of whom, even with international careers, have become very familiar to San Diego Opera’s performances. (The attractions of sunny San Diego and the friendliness of the company are particular draws for many artists.)

The regimental officers Zuniga and Morales were sung respectively by Kevin Langan and Scott Sikon. Langan was superb as the military bossman, whose own misbehavior seals Don Jose’s fate.

The other four members of Carmen’s outlaw quintet were Rachel Copeland (Frasquita), Priti Gandhi (Mercedes),  Jeff Mattsey (Duncaire) and Joseph Hu (Ramendado).

The sets and costumes, designed to reflect the Seville of the 1870s contemporary with the opera’s first performances, were originally created by the Houston Grand Opera and are now owned by the Utah Opera. At one point San Diego Opera owned these sets. A more modernistic “Carmen” production was presented here five years ago, but this season’s return to a more traditional looking “Carmen” was well received by the San Diego audiences.

The San Diego Opera Experience

Your website host William just reviewed San Diego Opera season’s other French opera – the super-popular Gounod’s “Faust”, noting that these two operas are the most-performed French operatic masterpieces seen today. I note this as William – like a finger-wagging college professor who knows his stuff – grades opera productions on many criteria. And why do I mention these grades?

Because I rate San Diego Opera’s entire 2011 Season with fabulous productions of Puccini’s “Turandot”, Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”, “Faust”, and now “Carmen” as an A+ season – all criteria considered! From the viewpoint of the operas selected, the casting, how they looked and how they sounded – this was world-class opera competing with any great opera house in the world, all comers invited!!

With operas not performed all that often, both your website host William and I usually do a short Opera 101 refresher to bring our readers up to speed, but not for “Carmen” as all of us opera lovers know – and love – this wonderful piece. Indeed, being a baritone, I very often “do” the Toreador song in the shower and know many others who also do this! “Carmen” has it all with a believable story, terrific-gripping drama, fabulous color, lots of action, love songs, conflict and above all else, utterly sensational music. And San Diego Opera addressed every one of these aspects with marvelous flourish, concluding a season in which your host and I could and do say that of every production presented this season!

With the close of this brilliant 2011 season, we can all look  forward to San Diego Opera’s 2012 season bringing the new, American blockbuster Heggie’s “Moby Dick” about which San Diego Opera boss Ian  Campbell spoke in detail in before-the-opera remarks to the “Carmen” audience, also highlighting Richard Strauss’ gut-wrenching – and fabulous — Salome on the menu plus Donizetti’s rollicking comedy “Don Pasquale” with another laugh-in served for 2012’s season-dessert, Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”. Sounds terrific.

For another Tom’s Review of “Carmen”, see: Tom Reviews Smoking Opera Pacific “Carmen” – March 8, 2007.
For William’s most recent review of “Carmen”, see: Krasteva, Jovanovich Sizzle in Chicago “Carmen” – Lyric Opera, March 15, 2011