Colorful & Lively Production is Well Worth the Wait
By George B. Parous
Ever wonder why they call it “Grand Opera?” Never been, but waiting for one you’re guaranteed to enjoy? Try the twice delayed Carmen at Pittsburgh Opera. You’ve already heard most of the “tunes,” whether you know it or not. You’ll leave with a better understanding of the “Grand” part. The “stars” shine in their roles, and the ensembles are sometimes massive. The opera is so popular that it’s been studio recorded many times, going back as far as the first one in 1908 – and that one took quite a pile of 78s. I mention studio recordings only in that I can’t remember hearing a live performance of Carmen that came closer in finish, than last night’s at the Benedum. And I’ve seen and heard quite a few.
The crowd on hand to take in last night’s extravaganza was large, and knew it was hearing a good thing, because applause was loud, long and sincere. The final curtain had to be dropped, and left down, in order for people to realize it was time to go home. Earlier, Christopher Hahn, General Director of Pittsburgh Opera, made a few hearts skip beats when he walked onto the stage once the lights dimmed a little after 8:00, but he quickly spoke of the COVID-induced delays in bringing the production to fruition, then asked everyone to rise for the playing and the singing of the Ukrainian national anthem. It was a touching moment, and deeply appreciated.
So far as the conducting of Antony Walker, and the large group of instrumentalists following his lead, it’s somewhat of a challenge to come up with “superlative” adjectives that haven’t been used before. Their sound was solid and appropriate throughout, with the overture being a snappy standout, and the divine prelude to Act III being especially exquisite. Mark Trawka did his usual wonders with the always excellent chorus, and the stage at times was a seething mass of colorfully and richly costumed choristers, supes, a couple of dancers from Attack Theatre and a large number of well drilled youngsters from the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus.
In the title role, Zanda Švēde made her Pittsburgh Opera debut, and one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Her velvety mezzo-soprano voice gained in color and volume as the opera progressed, and in action her facial expressions proved to be as suggestive as the swish of her skirts. Her “Card Scene” was dramatically intense, and she tossed off the part’s more well-known arias with great ease and éclat. The last Carmen I saw came close to being the best one I’d ever seen or heard, but after Ms. Švēde’s performance, I’m not exactly sure if I remember the singer’s name. As the love-tortured Don José, tenor Scott Quinn also made his company debut. He sang best the role’s famous “Flower Song,” but displayed a pure, clear tenor in all of his scenes. He mostly resisted the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth some Don Josés employ to go out with a bang in the final act.
As Escamillo, the Toreador, Michael Todd Simpson sang his part in a richly colored, true baritone voice, and acted the part well, showing a mercy few Toreadors do – there was no incessant swishing of his cape! Pittsburgh favorite, Danielle Pastin, was given a grand welcome in the soprano role of Micäela. The duet with Don José, and the Act III aria, she sang with great beauty of tone. It seems as if Georges Bizet composed Micäela’s music to give the almost secondary role a chance to briefly “steal the show.” Anyone who has heard Ms. Pastin’s luscious voice can well imagine that that’s exactly what she did. The house rose at her in a tidal wave of applause.
The secondary roles, since they were in the capable hands of Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists, present and past, means they were lifted to a degree of prominence not usually attainable in Carmen. Daniel Teadt (Moralès), Jeremy Harr (Lieutenant Zuniga), Véronique Filloux (Frasquita), Leah Heater (Mercédès), Yazid Gray (Dancaïro) and Andrew Turner (Remendado) do not make up a “secondary” cast by any means. Mr. Harr again proved that his sonorous bass is powerful enough to resonate through the large Benedum. Véronique Filloux and Leah Heater (Leah de Gruyl when she was wowing us as a Resident Artist a few years ago) were perfectly cast as Carmen’s close friends who try to warn her away from her ultimate fate. But of all the “firsts” heard last night, finally, the delightful Act II quintet was sung by Švēde, Heater, Filloux, Gray and Turner in a manner I’ve never heard emanate live from a stage. It was one of the most brilliant moments of the evening.
If you do plan on attending any of the three remaining performances, it would be a great idea to get your tickets as soon as possible. I knew in advance that I would be attending the Friday night performance just to sit back and listen with a friend, and even the orchestra seats were few and far between. That is great news, but again, check those seating charts and buy your tickets yesterday.
If you want to look over full plot and production details, and again, grab those ticket ASAP, visit Pittsburgh Opera. https://www.pittsburghopera.org/season/carmen/
The Artistic Team for Carmen –
Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Garnett Bruce; Set Designer, R. Keith Brumley; Costume Designer, Sarasota Opera Association, Inc.; Lighting Designer, Andrew Ostrowski; Choreography, Attack Theatre; Wig and Make-up Designer, James Geier; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight; Assistant Stage Managers, Philip Gold and Hannah Nathan; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Stage Director, Kaley Karis Smith; Assistant Wig and Make-up Designer, Nicole Pagano
David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera