A vivid cast triumphs over staging distractions in Houston Grand Opera’s “Carmen”

Sat Oct 23, 2021 at 12:30 pm
By Steven Brown
Carolyn Sproule and Richard Trey Smagur star in Bizet’s Carmen at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Lynn Lane

Rob Ashford’s production of Carmen works hard to be lively. The director-choreographer marshals 13 dancers in addition to the cast Georges Bizet’s score calls for, and Ashford’s troupe goes into action even before the singers do. 

Nevertheless, Houston Grand Opera’s revival conveys the iconic tale’s drama and passion more powerfully to the ear than the eye.

In the opening-night performance Friday at the Wortham Theater Center, mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule brought the title role an earthy, full-throated voice that exuded Carmen’s rebelliousness and free spirit. Right from her opening “Habanera,” this Carmen’s lusty tones showed that she was a larger-than-life figure.

Especially in the “Habanera” and “Seguidilla,” Sproule complemented the lustiness with a lightness that brought out Carmen’s flirtatious, mercurial side. When Sproule’s voice reached out to give a gentle caress to whichever man caught Carmen’s eye, the allure registered instantly.

And as Carmen’s romance with one of those men—the jealous Don José—went sour, the sheer abandon of Sproule’s singing captured the power of the doomed heroine’s refusal to let him cling to her. When Carmen confronted fate’s implacability in her Act 3 “card” aria, Sproule’s voice grew from a hush into a surge of almost raw intensity.

Even though Carmen’s music doesn’t center on high notes, Sproule’s voice soared aloft with an ease and vibrancy that made the occasional vaulting phrases into visceral expressions of Carmen’s courage in the face of doom. Only in the role’s lowest passages—such as Carmen’s cries of “la mort!” at the very end of the card scene—did Sproule’s voice come up short of heft.

When it came to vocal heft, tenor Richard Trey Smagur’s Don José was every bit the the equal of Sproule’s Carmen. His top notes sounded blunt on opening night, yet Smagur’s hefty, dark-hued tones gave the desperate José’s outbursts a walloping impact.

Before José’s emotions reached that fever pitch, Smagur brought his music a softer side that many tenors neglect. In the Act 1 duet with Micaela, José’s hometown sweetheart, Smagur sang with a tenderness that conveyed José’s affection for her (and his distant mother).

The tenor turned the “Flower Song” into a dramatic statement unto itself, rather than just a famous melody. He began it quietly, then welled up with a touch of ferocity as José recalled “accusing myself of blasphemy” when he sat in prison and questioned his affection for Carmen. And at the aria’s climax, where Bizet asks for the tenor to sing quietly as the vocal line rises, Smagur—unlike most tenors—actually did so. He may not have produced the sweetest pianissimo ever, but Smagur at least aimed for poetry rather than just belting out a high note.

José’s final, fatal confrontation with Carmen was all the more potent because Smagur reined in his voice as José approached Carmen outside the bull ring, making the eventual explosion of violence seem even more intense.

Bass-baritone Christian Pursell treated Escamillo’s music to rich, resonant tones that suited the macho persona of the star bullfighter, making it convincing that Carmen would leave José for him. Pursell brought suavity and swagger to the “Toreador Song,” and in Act 4, he sang Escamillo’s little love song to Carmen with an ardor that got the message across.

In a role that depends even more on sheer vocal attractiveness, soprano Heidi Stober brought warmth and lyrical glow to Micaela’s brief time onstage. In Micaela’s duet with José in Act 1 and aria in Act 3, Stober enabled Bizet’s big melodies to well up richly, but she also gave each number a flavor its own. In the duet, her touches of delicacy conveyed Micaela’s innocence and her love for José. 

Carmen’s smuggler buddies were a lively band: soprano Raven McMillon as Frasquita; mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce as Mercedes; tenor Ricardo Garcia as El Remendado; and baritone Luke Sutliff as El Dancairo. They zipped through their quintet with Carmen with vivacity and enhanced the exuberance of the smugglers’ gathering in Act 3.

Photo: Lynn Lane

Ashford’s production lays out crowd scenes such as that picturesquely, and when his dancers pair up as romantic couples in Lillas Pastia’s tavern, they enhance the cozy atmosphere. Otherwise, his staging—premiered in 2014, revived now by assistant director Stephen Sposito and assistant choreographer Ashley Elizabeth Hale—too often gets in the story’s way.

As soon as the fate motif rings out during the opera’s prelude, the curtain rises on a dancer costumed as a bull, surrounded by others portraying bullfighters. They perform a stylized confrontation, then the bull becomes a motif throughout the opera proper, reappearing whenever signs of danger appear around Carmen. Whether the bull symbolizes the power of fate or Carmen herself, it hardly adds anything that isn’t clear enough in the music and plot. And as Act 4’s final Carmen-José standoff plays out, the bull faces off against a dancer wearing a costume like Escamillo’s. Their choreographed battle distracts from the opera’s climactic events, unfolding right alongside them.

Finally, as Carmen lies dead, a horrified Escamillo—yes, Escamillo, not José—crouches despondently over her body, as if his emotions mattered at this point in the tragedy.

Throughout the opera, David Rockwell’s sets help point toward the real story. They suggest the town square, tavern and other locales in simple, stylized form—and make for swift enough changes that the evening unfolds with only one intermission.

Despite the unhelpful staging, the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, led by Lydia Yankovskaya, helped pull the focus back toward Bizet. The orchestra brought out the zest and slinkiness of the dances, the smoothness of the lyrical flights, and the flashiness of the choral scenes—with the HGO Chorus adding its own crispness and spirit. Along with Sproule and company, they all remembered where the true Carmen is when the production lost its way.

Houston Grand Opera’s Carmen runs through November 7. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737. 

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