The last time I reviewed a Minnesota Orchestra performance of a concert-version of an opera, I'd had the advantage of being able to compare it to the Minnesota Opera fully-staged performance of the same work (Tosca). This time, the performance will have to stand or fall on its own, as I missed the Opera's offering of Carmen in April 2005.
And stand on its own it can. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra had better watch out - the Minnesota Orchestra is turning into one fine opera orchestra. And the way the Minnesota Opera has done so much "minimalist" staging recently, this partially-staged performance rivals their fully-staged ones.
Bizet's gypsy Carmen is a women dead-set on living life on her own terms. While seeming to be strong and self-assured, one wonders whether her flirting and flitting from one man to the next hides a deep insecurity and fear of being hurt. At any rate, she is a complicated character and it takes a talented actress to keep her from being a caricature. Angela Horn is such an actress. An attractive woman, Miss Horn is a believable temptress - and a mighty fine castanet player, too. The voice, however, was not up to her other attributes, often getting lost in the lower register when competing with the orchestra or other voices. Her upper register was strong and clear and not a bit strained.
As the bullfighter Escamillo, Stephen Powell was a loveable ham. A rich voice and a slightly over-the-top arrogance made him a perfect toreador. His entourage, carrying clipboards and wearing Ray-Bans, fawned on him and kept the groupies and autograph-seekers at bay. Bullfighter as rock star. Marvelous.
Jennifer Baldwin Peden played the teen-aged Micaela, dutiful and faithful to the errant Don Jose. Miss Peden's voice was high and thin like a cirrus cloud and conveyed the sweetness and innocence of the character. This might have been a deliberate production and the voice may have more meat to it in other roles.
The highlight of the evening was Roy Cornelius Smith as Don Jose. And, indeed, his reception at the curtain calls was louder and warmer than anyone else's, although each singer enjoyed a heart-felt ovation. Mr. Smith was a short-notice substitution for the ailing Gordon Gietz. In the first half of Act 1, his voice was a little ragged, as though he had not had sufficient warm-up time. As the opera went on, his voice became stronger until, in the last scene of the last act, it sounded as though he had the strength to easily sing the opera over again.
While Carmen and her friends are drinking at the Lillas Pastia tavern in Act 2, a group of dancers entertains them, a ballet being an almost "must" in opera of the day. Penelope Freeh and her troup of dancers were spirited and talented, remarkably being able to pull off their moves in only a small section of the stage.
The always impressive Minnesota Chorale kicked off their shoes - literaly for the women - and came down from the back of the stage to be characters in the play. Singing without music in their staged portions (although using music when they weren't) they added to the general impression that we were seeing a staged instead of a concert performance. A comparison here to the Tosca performance in May 2006: none of the singers in Carmen used music while all the singers carried music folders with them throughout Tosca, although only occasionally refering to them.
Andrew Litton, a talented conductor and music director did it all this year: conducted orchestral concerts, performed as a soloist and ensemble player and pulled off an ambitious and challenging concert opera performance. Let's hope that the Minnesota Orchestra will perform more opera - during the regular season and during Sommerfest - in coming years.