NCPA/Chen: Carmen

Date: May 13, 2010
Conductor: Zuohuang Chen
Director: Francesca Zambello
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Francesca Zambello takes bow in the premiere of NCPA's new production of Carmen.

Francesca Zambello takes bow in the premiere of NCPA's new production of Carmen.

Francesca Zambello’s new Beijing production of Carmen, commissioned by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, was a resounding triumph. Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s libretto, based on the eponymous novella by Prosper Mérimée, was realized by Zambello’s international team in all its gripping drama and theatricality. British set designer Peter Davison built an elephantine set that, at each point of its unveiling, triggered collective gasps by an awed audience. Costume designer Susan Willmington and lighting designer Benjamin Pearcy, both Brits, provided plenty of peppery visual stimulus. An ebullient cast obliged, and delivered an enthusiastic and sumptuously pleasurable stage performance.

Davison’s set was sweeping and broad, covering the proscenium’s entire width. When curtain rose for the first act, a street view was revealed with a slight downward slant to the left, as if to highlight the undulating landscape of Moorish Spain. A rectangular well was placed in the middle of the stage, providing an anchor upon which the first act chorus gathered and an excuse for Carmen to wash her legs and breasts and, most assuredly, to flaunt those plump assets. The second act was a mirror image of the first, whereby the first act’s street stage was flipped to reveal its corresponding interior space. A flight of stairs running from the back to the middle of the stage served as the entrance to Lillas Pastia’s inn and Escamillo’s famed entry point. The set for the third act was a revelation: an imposing rocky scene split into two spaces by a torn wall: a dimly lit, cold space where the smugglers gathered with their contraband, and a warmer volume where Micaela initially hid. While Carmen was never about good versus bad, the contrast was obvious, and the comparison apt. The torn wall spectacularly ran the full height of the proscenium, and upon its unveiling at the beginning of the third act, the audience reacted with a series of approving applauses. The fourth act fully utilized the NCPA’s gigantic stage by prominently showcasing a large bull-fight arena piece, with a nearly five-meter, arched passageway serving as Escamillo’s entrance to the ring and exit from stage.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen, was a captivating actor. The eyes of her Carmen were ablaze with lust and mischievousness, while her sexy body movement was suggestive and inviting. The coloration with which she adorned her melodic lines was expressive and, unlike those colorations from many other overconfident Carmens, not so self-important as to appear vain. Her middle voice, while lacking the velvety warmth typical of an engaging Carmen, had plenty of weight and confidence without any audible hint of chest voice. That said, Chavez’s pitch was somewhat suspect: she tended to go sharp whenever there was a high note in forte, and on various occasions she would enter her passage in a slightly misplaced key, especially En vain… amères at the beginning of the third act.

Jean-Luc Chaignaud’s Escamillo was entertaining and dependable. His stage entry in the second act was full of panache, highlighted by his dramatic throwing of his montera across the stage. His vocal entrance, by comparison, was more pedestrian, as he initially had trouble finding a dynamic range that could carry over the orchestra and into the auditorium. That was not his fault alone – the long recession between the top of the staircase, where he entered, and the orchestra was unforgiving and bore some of the blame. As he descended and moved forward, his voice carried through, in a measured display of baritonal confidence. The rest of the supporting cast excelled: Chen Peixin’s Zuniga delivered a bass line that was full and rounded. Niu Shasha and Li Xintong displayed plenty of coloratura skills in the roles of Mercedes and Frasquita: their harmonious duets Mêlons! Coupons! and Quant au douanieraffaire! stood out with plenty of sappy sweetness. Li Hong served up a feisty Lillas Pastia: her acting was charismatic and lively, though her stunning beauty was somewhat a distraction, especially in the scene before Carmen’s initial entrance in the first act, where Li’s Lillas wore the red flower and taunted the soldiers in a prominent, and in my opinion excessive, fashion.

Richard Troxell’s spinto voice was a little on the lighter side but was well polished and ripe. Listed in the programme notes as a lyric tenor, the American’s voice seemed more naturally suited for spinto roles such as Jose. His careful technique allowed him to navigate the more difficult passages with security and ease. His La fleur, in particular, was meticulously crafted and superbly acted. While he momentarily cracked in the bar just before the big aria’s finale, he recovered to deliver a rousing Bb in mezzo-forte, even though he did not manage (or be bothered) to work on the pianissimo. I would love to hear more of him, as Riccardo, perhaps even Manrico and Alvaro if he continues to build more weight to his voice.

Among the singers of the evening, Anne-Catherine Gillet, as Micaela, had the most comfortable command of the vocal instrument. She demonstrated a luxurious yet well-regulated trill, a huge top and an expressive timbre. She was also a capable actor: many of the Micaelas I have seen in the past were so overacted as to border annoying, but Gillet’s Micaela was mellow and lovable, beaming the kind of ravishing affability one typically associates with one’s friendly next door neighbor. Her arias were phrased with passionate individuality, without teetering on self-indulgence. The Belgian, quite naturally, also had the clearest diction amongst the international cast.

The biggest problem of the evening remained in the pit. At times, Zuohuang Chen sounded as if he had tremendous difficulty holding together the NCPA Orchestra, newly-formed just a few months ago. Soloists romped free, creating a horrendously jagged and patchy orchestral output. Even when everything seemed synchronized and balanced, the playing seemed more routine than inspired, and showed none of the sparkle which Bizet infused into the score. The only worthy highlight of the evening was the Toreador song, which was rendered with broad strokes, in a controlled hysteria of festivity and fervor. But a fleeting moment did not an evening make, and the subpar performance was insulting to a largely educated audience whose discontent at the conducting during the curtain calls were scattered but clearly audible, and, in my opinion at least, justified.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen.

Note: this is the dialogue version. While the NCPA’s sheer size should really call for the Guiraud version, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the dialogues were transmitted to my balcony seat. Some of the audibility problems had nothing to do with version choice: the beginning of Escamillo’s Act 2 aria was due to design limitation; and for part of the evening, due to an orchestra that loomed too much over the voice.


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