Tales of a Gypsy

FGO brings the season to a sizzling close with Carmen

We know her, we love her, and we can't get enough of her.

People who have never been to an opera house could probably recognize Carmen within a few notes. And those who love opera remain fascinated by this sexy creature. Carmen was the heroine of Prosper Mérimée's 1845 novella and a controversial figure by the time Georges Bizet brought her to the stage in 1875. And there has been no stopping her since. A man-eating, chain-smoking, gorgeous object of desire with a mind of her own, she became Seville's most infamous denizen this side of Figaro and Don Juan. Florida Grand Opera, which began its relationship with Bizet's gypsy half a century ago, is saying farewell to an era by staging Carmen as its last production at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium. In October the company will move to the Miami Performing Arts Center.

"Carmen is one of the most popular operas in the world," says Justin Moss, FGO's managing director for marketing and communication. "When we realized that we had opened our first season in Dade County Auditorium in 1951 with Carmen, it seemed fitting that we close our last season there with it in 2006.

Franco Pomponi (left) and Rinat Shaham in FGO's production of Bizet's Carmen
DEBORAH GRAY MITCHELL
Franco Pomponi (left) and Rinat Shaham in FGO's production of Bizet's Carmen

Details

Music by Georges Bizet. Directed by David Gately. Conducted by Stewart Robertson and Andrew Bisantz. Presented by the Florida Grand Opera through May 6; 1-800-741-1010.
Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W Flagler St, Miami

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"In 1951 Dade County Auditorium was a big step up from Miami Senior High School Auditorium," continues Moss. "Over the years, though, as production values among American opera companies began to improve significantly, it became apparent that Dade County Auditorium had many limitations. The lack of wing space meant that arriving audiences were often treated to a view of the scenery for Acts II and III outside, in the open air. Lobby space was inadequate. The only solution would be a new opera house. It has taken a long time, but we will finally open our first production, Verdi's Aïda, in that new house on October 28, 2006."

Will anybody miss the old barn? Nostalgia is a funny thing, and opera-mad Miamians will no doubt have fond memories. "The only sentimental thoughts we have about leaving Miami-Dade County Auditorium are of the legacy of the great artists who have performed on that stage over the years," confesses Moss, who then rattles off the stars of a recent golden age of singing, including Luciano Pavarotti, who made his American debut at the Dade County Auditorium in 1965.

Not much later came another high point — Aïda — with the legendary Franco Corelli flanked by Mary Curtis-Verna and Joann Grillo. Full disclosure about that production: I was in it. With Miami High just down the street, it seemed natural for the company to recruit the swim team to play the triumphant Egyptian army of extras. My best friend Doug Bothwell and I led the parade, in full King Tut drag, and it took us a couple of nights to realize the huge applause wasn't for us or even for Corelli but for the elephant ambling behind us. Can Aïda this October top that?

"With Aïda, we begin a new artistic era at the new Miami Performing Arts Center," says Moss. "It is one of the grandest of grand operas, and we really never could do it justice at Miami-Dade County Auditorium."

But what about FGO's current show, Carmen? The news is mixed, but the singing is fine, and the final scene is incandescent. True, the traditional sets are not only cramped (blame the auditorium) but also ugly. In opera, as in life, the conservative and the mindless often go together, and with Carmen, a unit set too naturalistic for its own good has to pass for the four different locations Bizet demands. Scattering twigs on a plaza does not make it look like a mountaintop, and the high-flying gypsy smugglers in their raucous hideout looked uncomfortably like homeless people encamped in the middle of town. Add to that David Gately's silly direction, and any hope of real drama goes out the window. The curtain goes up too soon on Carmen telling her own fortune, making Bizet's brilliant yet blunt five-note Fate motif unnecessarily blunter and spoiling one of opera's great entrances a full twenty minutes later. And the bullfight parade in Act Four is a lame amateur show inexplicably led by Chinese ribbon dancers. The acting is, for the most part, wooden.

Then again, the tale is in the music. And the music is hot. Even in the present age of beautiful baritones, Franco Pomponi's Escamillo signals the arrival of someone to notice: a good-looking man with a voice reminiscent of the young Thomas Hampson and a charismatic stage presence. Pomponi commanded attention in the famous "Toreador's Song" and later suggested macho vulnerability when facing Carmen before the bullfight. His singing is too wild for the music's own good, but there is immense promise here. As Micaela, the country girl who is no match for the gypsy, Sandra López basically sang her two arias as a guest star in recital — in truth it could be said the role was written this way — with a luscious, stronger voice than one often expects. William Joyner sounded nervous as Don José in Act One, and his breath support was erratic. But he pulled it together for the gorgeous "Flower Aria," and his final scene was memorable.

That leaves Rinat Shaham's Carmen. She looks like a cuter Minnie Driver and, at her best, can sound in the vibrant middle voice like the late Anna Moffo. Her voice is not huge, but it is beautifully focused and bravely colored: The Israeli mezzo's chest tones, shamelessly audible, spoke volumes of Carmen's independent spirit. It is a point of controversy whether Bizet's Carmen commits suicide in the last act, whether she could have avoided being killed by the abandoned José. In Shaham's voice it is clear that this Carmen, a living chiaroscuro of life and death, is getting exactly what she wants.

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