By Georges Bizet
Presented by West Bay Opera
At the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA; 650-424-9999
Conducted by Ernest Fredric Knell
Directed by David Sloss

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Georges Bizet's Carmen and its signature arias have become so familiar that one almost forgets what a daunting challenge it is both musically and dramatically. West Bay Opera's production -- at least the performance seen Feb. 20 -- makes those challenges apparent. It meets most of the musical challenges well, but some key elements are missing dramatically.

The most crucial missing element is a sexy, sultry Carmen, a woman who fights in the cigarette factory, cavorts with smugglers and bewitches every man who sees her. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Dawn Hines doesn't fill that bill. Pretty and petite, she comes across as too young and innocent. She lacks both the sultriness and the graceful stage presence to dominate a scene the way a complete Carmen should. On the other hand, she meets the vocal requirements splendidly. Her voice is rich and powerful, her tone ingratiating except for occasional straining on high notes. Judged only on her singing, she's a fine Carmen.

It must be stressed that these comments pertain only to the cast seen Feb. 20 and scheduled again Feb. 26 and 28. Because WBO double-casts its principals, a different set of singers was scheduled for Feb. 19, 21, 25 and 27. The other Carmen is Layna Chianakas. Other alternates will be named in parentheses.

The reviewed Don José, tenor Francisco Almanza (Jonathan Boyd), is another fine singer. His voice is so big that it took him a while to adjust to the small theater, but he soon found the proper level. He has good high notes and sings with the necessary ardor. He doesn't always blend well, however, particularly with Micaëla. His acting is acceptable despite occasional stiffness.

Soprano Elisabeth Rom (Aimée Puentes) is well-cast as Micaëla, the shy, demure country girl. Although she has a good voice, she sometimes goes sharp. She also has a tendency to sing to the audience rather than the person she's addressing onstage.

Baritone Ryan Taylor (Michael Rogers) is a likable Escamillo. Except for some nearly inaudible low notes in his ``Toreador Song,'' he has excellent technique and good control, showing no strain on high notes. Although he carries himself well and has strong stage presence, his Escamillo is not pompous. Instead he comes across as an initially modest but gifted man who has become comfortable with his fame without losing his nice-guy aura. It's a fine line that Taylor negotiates successfully.

Bass William Neil's (no alternate) Zuniga is stiff with a wide vibrato and a stern expression that rarely changes. Soprano Kristin Genis (Amy McKenzie) as Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Sarah Helen Land (no alternate) as Mercédès are well-paired. Except Genis' shrill high notes, they blend well. They also create believable characters as gypsy women who know how to manipulate men and who truly care about Carmen. Tenor Jimmy Kansau (Ben Barr) as Le Remendado and baritone Matthew Cavicke (no alternate) as Le Dancaïre also are well-paired vocally and dramatically.

Music director Ernest Frederic Knell leads the fine orchestra, providing sensitive support for the singers. The overture is well-played except for a need for more violin unity in the "Toreador" theme. The prelude to Act II is outstanding, especially the bassoons and other woodwinds. The children's chorus makes up in enthusiasm and charm what it lacks in vocal finesse, while the adult chorus needs more energy and stronger stage presence. The men playing soldiers, for example, need a more military bearing.

Stage director David Sloss, WBO's general director, marshals his forces well, adding some nice stage business. Dancer-choreographer Julieta Zuniga's gypsy dance in Act 2 is a graceful addition to the production. Set designer Jean-François Revon has created attractive, workable settings for the small stage. Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting is effective, especially the onset of dawn during the Act 3 prelude. Costumes by Kate Crowley are suitable. The outfits worn by Carmen and Escamillo in Act 4 are the most noteworthy.

For more information, see the West Bay Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:52 PST