Star Advertiser Review Carmen

Star Advertiser Review: Vocal power makes HOT’s ‘Carmen’ a tour de force

Mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich is the quintessential “Carmen” in Hawaii Opera Theatre’s version of the opera that dates back to 1875.

It is a term heard all too frequently these days: domestic abuse. The stories are always sad, tragic, even horrifying.

But what if you could weave such a painful theme into a story that is intriguing, interesting, even fun? That is what George Bizet managed to accomplish with his 1875 opera, “Carmen,” the tale of a gypsy seductress who stirs lust in the hearts of every man she meets and ultimately falls to the weakest among them.

Hawaii Opera Theatre brings this remarkably current story to life with a well-balanced cast, featuring mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich in the title role — and proving why she is considered perhaps the best Carmen in opera today — and now-local tenor Kip Wilborn as Don Jose, who undergoes a tortuous journey from would-be straight arrow to hapless foil. Under the direction of guest director Tara Faircloth from Houston, this “Carmen” is a traditional presentation, set in 19th-century Seville. Regular HOT patrons will recognize the set from previous years’ productions of “Carmen,” but the costuming is newly acquired from another company, and it’s spectacular.

Carmen and Don Jose have many costume changes, with Carmen going from shabby factory worker to fashionable matador groupie, while Don Jose moves in the other direction, going from decked-out soldier to grubby outlaw.

Aldrich is made for the role of Carmen, her raven hair and pale skin reminiscent of an El Greco painting. She knows how to move like the wanton woman that Carmen is, swaying her hips as she walks, flashing leg from underneath her flamenco skirt when she dances, her body language saying both “come on” and “stay away” at the same time. To the bitter end, there’s no fear in her Carmen, just the occasional hot-blooded outburst as she bends Don Jose and other men to her will. Aldrich’s voice is rich and pure — one almost wishes for some gravel in it in the lower registers, but that would be too modern, too rock ’n’ roll. It was much more impressive to hear that clarity maintained as she descended the chromatic Habanera aria in the first act, in which Carmen sings of the “rebellious” nature of love. Carmen is showboating before a crowd when she sings that famous tune, but Aldrich was equally up to the task in the intimate Seguidilla aria later in that act, when she seduces Don Jose for the first time. It is Don Jose who undergoes the transformation in “Carmen,” and Wilborn plays it subtly but effectively. He is a suppressed Don Jose in the beginning, hiding a troubled past (his back story is that he joined the military to avoid arrest for murder, thus becoming estranged from his family). Struggling to get his life back on track, he tries to put off Carmen, but falls under her spell during the Seguidilla and spends the rest of the opera deluding himself into thinking that he can save Carmen, not realizing that he’s not saving her, she’s breaking him. With that kind of role, his singing was appropriately uneven, showing strength at some times but weakness at others, while his Flower Song in the third act allowed him to radiate a lovely warmth in his voice.

Also showing off a beautiful voice was soprano Talise Trevigne as Micaela, the “good girl” of the story. Trying to save Don Jose, she showed resolve in fending off the unwanted attention of soldiers, yet in her third-act aria, she admits to being terrified. It’s almost like a surfer feeling fear in the face of big waves but then going on to conquer them.

The fun in this production is manifold. Darren Stokes plays the matador Escamillo as a party boy, making flourishing gestures as he hits on the local women, making big body as he belts out the famous Toreador Song. Sarah Lambert Connelly and Leslie Goldman are hilarious as the gypsy women Frasquita and Mercedes, and their quintet with the thieves Brian James Myer (Le Dancaire), Christian Sanders (Le Remendado) and Aldrich “praising” women for their deceitfulness was memorable. Visiting artists have always appreciated Hawaii Opera Theatre’s volunteer chorus, and “Carmen” drew out some outstanding performances from them as well, especially in the first act. The youngsters had a delightful moment as street urchins, mimicking the soldiers’ marching, while the women had a great time with their seductive smoking song — yet another instance in which Bizet anticipated a future trend. (And you thought Bogart and Bacall invented the notion of smoking as a metaphor for sex.)

Holding it all together was the orchestra under visiting conductor Derrick Inouye’s baton. Bizet’s beautiful interludes between acts shone, and the coordination with the singers overall was excellent. It’s hard to believe now that “Carmen” was panned when it debuted, drawing outrage for its portrayal of such immoral behavior. That is believed to have contributed to Bizet’s death a few weeks later. In the present day, however, “Carmen” can be seen as a skillfully drawn portrait of a relationship that should never have been, involving two people who each had weaknesses and were willing to exploit them. That it ends in death is almost logical, and HOT’s presentation is convincing in reaching that conclusion.

By Steven Mark, The Star Advertiser