Monday, April 20, 2009

Opera San Jose's Carmen, April 18, 2009

Sometimes it takes all night to figure out a voice, and such was certainly the case with Opera San Jose's Alexander Boyer, whose powerful tenor had a way of dominating the opening night of the company's "Carmen." Boyer's reading of Don Jose's famed Flower Song fully displayed the lyric ring of his instrument, but there was something else lying at the edges of his timbre, yet to be uncovered.

That something began to reveal itself in the mountain scene, as Jose got into louder and louder squabbles with his Carmencita, and came to full fruition in the final scene at the bullfight: a primal, slashing edge to his tone that began to bounce off the walls the further he fell into his character's desperate, ruined mindset. Boyer delivered an emotional welling-up full of stalker creepiness, leading up to a well-choreographed stabbing and a nice post-mortem kiss just to put a little Stephen King icing on the cake. I don't know if I've ever sat through a Carmen finale filled with so much tension, or a more fortuitous match of a singer's talents with a role's requirements.

The production marked the stage-directing debut of former OSJ singer Sandra Bengochea (nee Rubalcava), and though her ensemble work is a little rough around the edges, you have to enjoy her leanings toward chaos and an action-packed stage. This came through in much of the side-work: the hijinks of the boisterous smuggler duo Dancairo and Remendado (Stephen Boisvert and Bill Welch) and the intriguing decision to take the first-act catfight (usually recounted after-the-fact) and bring it onstage.

As our heroine, Cybele Gouverneur, born of Venezuelan parents, begins with the advantage of just plain looking like Carmen. The mezzo does well with upper ranges and elevated emotions - as in the final two scenes - but opts for a covered tone that can sometimes mute the lower reaches, as in the opening Habanera. (When the range dips truly low, however - as in the ominous Tarot song, "En vain pour eviter les responses ameres" - the results are downright spooky.) Gouverneur also needs more work with the "rhythmic gymnastics" portion of the program, the percussion and dancing tasks of Lillias Pastia's tavern.

As Micaela, Rebecca Davis delivers the same lovely lyric soprano we've heard in previous productions, but with a few odd problems with breathing and phrasing, particularly in the showpiece aria, "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante." She's much stronger soon after, in Micaela's brief report of the impending death of Jose's mother. Bulgarian baritone Krassen Karagiozov plays Escamillo with a James Bond smoothness that's almost too smooth. The part could use a little more vigor. I have always been a sucker for the sopranos who are cast as Carmen's sidekick Frasquita, and Jillian Boye certainly continues that tradition, playing the part as a kind of gypsy goth girl.

The OSJ chorus was a little off its game, taking an unfocused approach to Bizet's difficult parts, and carrying on a few quibbles with conductor David Rohrbaugh over entrances and tempos. This also happened with the rapid smuggler's quintet, "Nous avons en tete une affair." The orchestra, on the other hand, was spot-on all night, particularly with the gorgeous entre'acte and the festive bullfight anthems that follow. Set designer Giulio Cesare Perrone uses brick archways and slate steps to produce a warm public square, but his mountain set seems a little artificial. I'm also rather fond of the new stage cigarettes, which allow performers to simulate smoke by blowing powder out the ends. And, as always, the decision to use Bizet's original spoken dialogues will always receive a thumbs-up from these parts.

Opera San Jose, Bizet's "Carmen, through May 3, California Theatre, San Jose, $69-$91, 408/437-4450,
Image: Cybele Gouverneur as Carmen. Photo by Chris Ayers.