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Uneven "Carmen" in San Francisco

Review of Bizet's 'Carmen' performed by West Bay Opera of San Francisco.

Not necessarily one of the easiest operas to stage successfully, particularly by companies with limited resources, Carmen is all the same a perennial favorite that shows up frequently around the San Francisco Bay Area in one guise or another. This time around, West Bay Opera tackled Bizet¹s masterpiece and turned to their advantage the intimacy of the Lucie Stern Theatre without cutting corners during the opera¹s big moments.

A visually striking production with sets by Jean-François Revon and atmospheric lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt created an illusion of large open spaces while still allowing plenty of playing area on a variety of levels. Even the design for the third act mountain pass succeeded with Revon¹s painterly touch.

The costumes by Kate Crowley were not of the same order. Perhaps a lack of money or other resources was a fault, but the costumes lacked a unified look and ranged from the credibly raggedy costumes for the street urchins and peasants to the Disneyesque style gypsy designs for Carmen herself. In between those extremes were cartoon-like soldiers in the first act and a Toreador costume for Escamillo in the final act that was inexplicable bright blue, although with traditional trim.

The cast featured three strong principals who propelled the story forward and set high standards that only part of the rest of the cast were able to meet. Jennifer Dawn Hines¹ Carmen was a sunny, lively presence emphasizing the carefree gypsy aspects rather than the darker fatalistic side. Hines has a rich, plummy voice and full tone, particularly in the middle and lower registers where so much of the role lies. Occasionally the top would not respond and the tone would momentarily thin, but for the most part, it was a beautifully sung performance.

Francisco Almanza knows just how far to stretch his voice as Don José. At times it sounded as if he might be pushing beyond his limits, but then he would pull back and find a pleasing balance between the lyric and dramatic demands. Not as natural a stage presence as his Carmen, Almanza nonetheless gave a carefully considered and well thought out interpretation of the role that worked well against Hines¹ Carmen.

The third of the strong principals was Ryan Taylor as Escamillo, the toreador. The role, and in particular his big aria lie a little low for Taylor so the very bottom notes were a stretch, but the top rang out with clarity and ease. With his burnished tone and vocal confidence Taylor was well suited to the role and sang it with swaggering elegance and style.

Elizabeth Rom looked and acted the part of Micaëla very nicely, but her lightweight voice and uncomfortable top made for some rough going in both her first act duet and her third act aria.

West Bay Opera¹s chorus made a zestful, committed contribution with strong theatrical values and more variable musical ones. While some of the smaller group passages sounded thin and uncertain, in the larger ensembles such as the end of Act Two and the opening of Act Four sounded full and well-blended.

Conductor Ernest Frederic Knell lead the performance with a firm sense of proportion and balance. He supported his singers ably and evoked from West Bay Opera¹s orchestra a full, engaging performance. The acoustics and the deep orchestra seemed to dampen the upper tones a bit, Knell maintained a steady balance to keep the sound from getting bottom heavy.

Director David Sloss staged a straightforward production that neither added anything special or detracted from the basic elements. The fight sequences were some of the most convincing and well-staged in recent memory and the chorus was deployed with and eye for movement and balance. But characterizations, relationships and specific details seemed left up to the individual performers with predictably variable results.

West Bay Opera¹s 1999 season concludes at the end of May with a production of Menotti¹s The Consul.

Kelly Snyder is a freelance reviewer of opera and theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also works as the Assistant Manager of Estate Services at Stanford University's Office of Development. Kelly also writes for San Francisco Frontlines, San Jose Living, and Le Concertographe. Occasionally, he performs Gilbert & Sullivan roles with the Lyric Theatre in San Jose. Visit West Bay Opera to learn more about schedules and performances

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