Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October, 1998
Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves was described in the Berkshire Opera Company literature as “the world’s reigning Carmen”. Being an opera idiot, I was not quite sure what that meant, until I went to Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood last night and was enlighted.
Although they walked this earth more than a century apart, it is obvious that Georges Bizet wrote “Carmen” in 1875 especially for Denyce Graves. Or that the opera god looked down from his heaven and created Graves especially to sing this role. Graves looks like Carmen and sounds like Carmen and moves like Carmen. Even in the spectacular evening gowns she wears for this staged concert performance, gowns that her character could never dream of owning, Graves IS Carmen.
“Carmen” is a brutal story of the last days of a fiercely independent and heartless woman. A gypsy by birth, Carmen chooses a life of crime with her friends over work in the local cigarette factory. As she flees her old life and takes up with smugglers, she lures an army corporal Don Jose along with her. He comes from a loving family life and leaves his demure sweetheart Micaela as he is seduced by Carmen’s wild sexually. But Don Jose is not suited for life as an outlaw, and his discontent bores and annoys Carmen. Just as a handsome young bullfighter, Escamillo, enters her life, Micaela returns to take Don Jose to his mother’s deathbed. Carmen is glad to be rid of him, but Don Jose is still obsessed with her. In the final act he confronts her at Escamillo’s bullfight. Don Jose begs her to return to him, but she vehemently refuses, noting that she was born free and that is how she will die. Don Jose stabs and kills her in a fit of jealous rage as the curtain falls.
That Graves has a magnificent voice and sings Bizet effortlessly goes without saying. But she is also a fine actress. Tall, sensuous, and strikingly beautiful, Graves looks every inch the wanton gypsy girl, even in her opera diva gowns. She commands the stage every moment that she is on. When the male chorus sings early on that they “dog the footsteps of La Carmencita” you do not need to ask why.
This makes the supporting roles a real challenge. You accept an assignment like this knowing that the audience will walk away raving about Graves and then mumbling, “Now, who was that guy who sang Escamillo?” The female supporting singers fared far better than the males. Actually, Graves as Carmen is such a commanding presence vocally and physically, that she has an emasculating effect on all the men. Face it, a guy in a tuxedo just cannot compete with Denyce Graves in a bright red diva gown, undulating her hips as she sings “L’amour et an oiseau rebelle”.
Especially notable in the supposting cast was soprano Dominique Labelle as Micaela. Gorgeous in a royal blue gown, she received thunderous applause for her rendition of “Je dis que reien ne m’epouvante” in Act III.
Even in a staged concert version, Carmen is a massive undertaking for the Berkshire Opera Company. The stage of Ozawa Hall was completely filled with the Camerata New York Orchestra conducted by Joel Revzen. Behind them sat the New York based Judith Clurman Chorale. And above and behind them was the nationally recognized Berkshire Children’s Chorus under the direction of North Egremont resident Nancy Loder.
It was interesting how intensely theatrical this concert performance became. Some times it is very good to look at a world class performer like Graves without having to worry about sets, props, lights, choreogrpahy, etc. All those things enhance a theatrical performance, but, at its heart, are the words, the music, and the people who bring them to life. I found myself able to look at the character of Carmen more closely without the surrounding stage clutter. I understood more of who she was and what the story was about in the performance than I ever had before.
The final benefit performance presented by the Berkshire Opera Company of “Carmen” is Saturday, October 3 at 6 PM at Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood on Route 183 in Lenox. It is performed in the original French but English supertitles are projected on a screen above the stage. Call 413-528-4420 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998