[addendum on 19 April 2011: I attended a meeting of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council Last week (report to follow), and I met several artsy people there, including the photographer Marco Calderon. It turns out that he was commissioned to take pictures of ASO's Carmen! So here are some pictures on his website and here is a lovely slideshow of his photos on vimeo.]
This past Sunday I had a fantastic time at Allentown Symphony Hall, where I got to see and hear Larry Lipkis’s fanfare “Maestranza,” and an abbreviated Carmen. My seat was dreadful: right behind the projector in a tiny, horrifically steep balcony that’s basically stapled to the top rear corner of the building where the ceiling meets the back wall, approximately a mile higher than and away from the stage. But that hardly mattered, because the acoustics (I thought) were great, and the concert was enhanced by a multi-media, multi-planar visual experience. More on that in a moment.
“Maestranza” by Larry Lipkis
Indeed, for the fanfare my seat added some interest, because I was located up behind the brass players (see my interview with Lipkis for an explanation of the spatial arrangement of his fanfare). This did spoil the ring effect for me (I was outside the ring, and the piece was really designed to have the audience inside it), but I could still follow the waves and arches worked into the piece. The piece was framed by nice opening and closing percussion work that set up the rhythmic interest and lively, celebratory mood of the piece consistent with its function as a fanfare. I thought there was good rhythmic consistency throughout the piece, in spite of what Lipkis told me about his propensity for shifting in and out of odd meters. The harmonic language was mostly straightforward tonality, with a few crunchier moments of interesting dissonance. There was nice formal structure, although I can’t reproduce it here exactly, having heard the piece only once (well, twice, if you count the time I heard it played by MIDI). The “arches” in the harp were lovely. Altogether, it was a spirited, enjoyable piece. The performance was almost spoiled by one trumpeter, who nearly blew it (well, did blow it, if you know what I mean!) by shrieking his way through the wrong notes up to the right ones just at the dramatic climax. That was too bad, but the piece was very nice and worked well as the start of the concert and as a prelude to Carmen, which was just what it was supposed to do.
This was a semi-staged, abridged version (I believe conductor and music director Diane Wittry made the abridgement herself) with a narrator (I don’t know if Diane also wrote the narration?), chorus, and dancers. The three soloists—Cristina Nassif (Carmen), Viktor Antipenko (Don José), and Eric Dubin (Escamillo)—were superb. I really thought they were, all three, just top-notch young singers. They were also excellent actors who used the stage and their physical presence to full advantage. And if I could tell this, sitting glued to the ceiling as I was, it must have been really great! Nassif has a rather rough mezzo, or maybe the roughness was somewhat assumed for the role, but her voice is very powerful and dramatic. She’s a great actress, too, making everybody on stage and off fall in love with her, and breaking all our hearts with “Là-bas, là-bas dans la montagne.” I remember that song as one of the highlights of my sister Nadine’s performance as Carmen; when she sang that song, she gave my huge shivers of Sehnsucht! Nassif didn’t exactly do that; but she did make me weep, at least intside. She is also extraordinarily beautiful!
I loved both the Don José and the Escamillo; Eric Dubin’s voice especially seemed extremely fluid, mellow, and powerful, all at once. And Viktor Antipenko handled all those killer arias gorgeously across their range, through their sustained notes, and with their emotional fervor.
One of my favorite moments was Escamillo and José’s fight duet. I had never heard it before, since all the versions I’ve ever seen or heard were also abridgements of various kinds, and left it out. How they could leave out that gorgeous song is beyond me. I love tenor-baritone duets anyway, and the one in Bizet’s Pearl Fishers is one of my favorites. This one is stunning, and Dubin and Antipenko sang it beautifully. It was one of the weaker moments in the blocking (Don José ran off stage in the opposite direction from Escamillo just after they had been fighting for their lives, which made no sense), but the beauty of the music helped me to get over that.
The narration was useful to help guide newcomers in the audience through the plot, since so much was left out, but was written in an entirely different tone from the text of the opera, so it didn’t blend. Because this was abridged, it was almost just a chain of arias and duets, one after the other, in a heart-wrenchingly beautiful chain of melodies. I think it was the perfect introduction to opera for any newbies in the crowd. A bunch of teenagers sitting behind me, talking about how this was their first opera, seemed to be amazed and overpowered by it, in the best ways. There were a few moments when the abridgement didn’t quite seem to work; when moments in the story didn’t make sense due to what had been skipped. For instance, José does not flee with Carmen at the end of “Non, tu ne m'aimes pas,” but returns to his barracks. So then his talk of “our past” later doesn’t make any sense, since they haven’t had any past. And I wasn’t sure if there were cuts taken internally in some of the orchestral parts? Micaela was left out entirely, as was (so sad!) the whole card-reading scene. This is another of my strongest memories from Nadine’s performance: she played it with extreme depth and pathos so that we understood Carmen and didn’t see her as just a two-dimensional seductress. Instead, we saw into her heart and into her past, recognizing the pain that made her into what she was: a wild country creature trapped in a city and in a confining political situation, using her body, and using men, to try to get out. In the card song, “En vain pour éviter les réponses amères,” we see that she has given up hope but has not given up longing. At least, that’s what Nadine put into it! I wonder what Cristina Nassif would have made of it—not that I would have been able to tell from where I was sitting.
Now, this was a semi-staged version, and so was Nadine’s, and I realize I’ve never seen it fully staged! So I don’t have a fully-staged version to compare to it, which is probably fine. I love the staging. It was really powerful. It did a lot with a little: Carmen peeling an orange while singing the “Habanera”; Don José tying her up with a long rope, then being reeled in along the rope himself during the seguidilla; good use of chairs, including Escamillo demonstrating the bull’s ferocity with the legs of a chair; and some cute if amateurish dancing by members of the Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley. Altogether, it was an engaging performance.
Finally, there was some interesting use of visual media. There was an enormous screen behind the orchestra on which images were projected throughout the show. They were in black and white and were minimal: a picture of a tree, the clouds, a castle, the bullring, festive lights in Lillas Pastia's, a gloomy lantern in the prison, etc. They were intended to serve instead of sets, to give a sense of time and place. They worked for provide that, but we are so used to colored, moving images that they seemed quaintly old-fashioned. At least they were not riveting our attention away from the stage action, which I suppose was the point. I think, then, that the visuals worked well together with the action and the music. This whole arrangement made for a difficult set-up for the musicians, however; the orchestra was on a slightly higher stage behind the action, which meant Ms. Wittry had her back to the singers at all times. I did not notice any musical discrepancies due to this, however, so I guess it worked! Overall, a remarkably strong performance of Carmen from a local symphony!
You can read the Morning Call’s review here.