The 2015-2016 Season begns at WNO

Bryan Hymel and Janai Brugger as Don Jose and Micaela.
Bryan Hymel and Janai Brugger as Don Jose and Micaela.

I first got to know tenor Bryan Hymel watching a recorded performance of Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable,” from Convent Garden. Hymel has a strong, firm, pliant, French-sounding voice—a high-powered, almost blazing kind of crooning–comfortable with the high tessitura of many French tenor roles, and he produced reliably exciting sounds all through the little-known Meyerbeer (a piece I’ve been fascinated by since I heard Eve Queler conduct it with Opera Orchestra of New York in 1988). In last night’s season-opening production of “Carmen” at the Washington National Opera, Hymel took time to warm up as Don Jose. He isn’t particularly comfortable on stage in any of the guises Don Jose must adopt: innocent lad from the country; romantically besotted young soldier; recklessly passionate lover; violently abusive spurned boy toy. But by the final scene he was, vocally, everything you want from Bizet’s doomed protagonist.

The other strength of this production is in the orchestra pit, where conductor Evan Rogister led the Washington National Opera Orchestra. He made his Washington opera debut last year with Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” but hearing him in a familiar score, and music that thrives on rhythmic and dynamic nuance, was a revelation. I don’t think the WNO Orchestra has sounded so good in this repertoire since Emmanuel Villaume was a semi-regular guest. Rogister drew forth beautifully shaped phrases in the Entr’act to Act III, and in the overture, and was unafraid in the First Act to let the scene-setting listlessness of the music sound in fact sultry, lazy and listless. The orchestra can often be unsubtle, but not last night, and even a few horn misfires didn’t diminish the fine effect.

French mezzo-soprano Clementine Margaine sang Carmen, and soprano Janai Brugger sang Micaela. Margaine’s Carmen evolved slowly through the evening, growing stronger and more fluent as an Act I tendency to chop up phrases gave way to a more thoroughly sustained and supported sound. Dramatically, her Carmen is more provocateur than temptress, a more vulgar presence than some, and more directly an agent in provoking the rage that will destroy her. It isn’t easy to believe that she is ever in love with Don Jose, at any point, so the drama becomes more of a test of wills played out on the field of erotic combat than a fleeting love gone sour. She’s a Carmen one respects—for her insatiable freedom, and contempt for sentimental platitude—but it isn’t easy to love her.

Janai Brugger, however, was an uncommonly appealing Micaela, both vocally (she has a sweet, precise, well-formed sound) and dramatically. It is almost impossible to create a Micaela who isn’t cloying and a bore, but Brugger did the only thing you can do with opera: Take the music and the cues seriously and carry off the obvious intent of composer. So she gave us an honest Micaela who, with no trace of irony, seemed genuinely committed to her role as intercessor between Don Jose and his saintly mother (suffering somewhere off stage as her son goes from naïf to wastrel to criminal). It would be good to hear more of her, and in larger roles.

Small-role standouts included Ariana Wehr as Frasquita and Aleksandra Romano as Mercedes, sparkling and fleet in the Act III fortune-telling scene. Michael Todd Simpson’s Escamillo was full-voiced but somewhat wooden.

The production is standard, and borrowed, and it feels that way. Perhaps it’s unfair to the WNO to complain too much about its lack of distinction. But even borrowed sets don’t preclude sharp restaging. Character interactions could be better focused—surely someone can goad more natural gestures from Hymel and more genuine passion between Carmen and Don Jose—and the chorus needs to be handled more effectively. Dramatic entrances weren’t always well timed, and the crowd, especially in Act I, moved with that strangely operatic habit of being both busy and purposeless at the same time.

And so it’s a fairly typical night at the opera: Much to enjoy, some standout performances, a long, complicated drama expertly handled from the pit, but also a level of the merely dutiful when it comes to theater.

Photo by Scott Suchman courtesy Washington National Opera

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