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New LA Opera Season Starts Off With A Bloodless 'Carmen'

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Arguably the most popular opera of them all, Georges Bizet's Carmen should be a rousing crowd-pleaser and a starry choice to kick off a company's new season, here in Los Angeles or anywhere. But while the LA Opera's opening night audience on Saturday provided the usual people-watching extravaganza from the lobby bar areas, the performance on stage was mostly underwhelming.

After about 15 minutes of exposition, the opera typically takes off when Carmen herself takes the stage and introduces herself as a smoldering femme fatale in the instantly recognizable "Habanera" aria. Rather than teasing or flirting, though, the current production has Irish mezzo Patricia Bardon delivering this declaration of untamable sensuality as a matter-of-fact lesson, a word of caution to her listeners rather than a romantic challenge. And the heat never gets turned up from there. Bardon often charms, as when she dares the soldier Don José to join her in her underworld lair "near the ramparts of Seville," but she never seduces.

American tenor Brandon Jovanovich's José also cuts an unprepossessing figure for much of the evening. His voice is strong, but José's declaration in the second-act "Flower Song" that seeing Carmen again has been "his only desire, his only hope" comes across as earnest instead of idiomatically impassioned. Still, in the final act, when José realizes how much he has sacrificed to be with Carmen, and that he may be about to lose her, Jovanovich does imbue José with impressively violent desperation.

Bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's previous engagements with LA Opera have given us repeated opportunities to praise his bravura performances. Here, though, singing the famous Toreador aria, D'Arcangelo is often drowned out by the orchestra. And the orchestra is not excessively loud.

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Certainly the high point of the evening was the LA Opera debut of South African soprano Pretty Yende as Micaëla, the innocent girl José intended to marry before he met Carmen. Micaëla only appears twice in the opera, once toward the beginning and then again when she visits the criminal hideout in the mountains where José remains under Carmen's spell. Although she had made her way to this dangerous spot by "telling myself that nothing can frighten me," once there she acknowledges that she really is afraid, but still resolved to redeem José and win him back. Indeed, Yende's winsome, plaintive rendition of this aria does much to redeem the production and win back our attention.

Hae Yi Chang and Cassandra Zoé Velasco also turn in nice performances as sisterly comrades of Carmen, and the chorus is in top form. LA Opera General Director Plácido Domingo, who starred as Don José in the popular 1984 motion picture version of Carmen, conducts at a brisk, energetic tempo.

Carmen runs for six more performances between tomorrow and October 6, with alternate singers in the roles of Carmen, Micaëla and Escamillo on September 28 and Don José on October 1 and 4. Grant Gershon conducts September 26 and 28 and October 4. Tickets $20 and up.