Los Angeles Opera is not without ambition or ingenuity, let alone is it risk adverse. It just looked that way Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as the company entered its fourth decade with "Carmen."
Only four years ago, a worn but occasionally quirky "Carmen" was the season opener. For the opera's rapid return, the production's least appealing feature, the imposingly naturalistic sets, have been retained. However, the staging has been rethought by Ron Daniels, based somewhat on his well-traveled, vividly cinematic, smoldering production of Bizet's opera that the now defunct Opera Pacific picked up back in 2001.
Cinematic allure, moreover, is what is being touted in L.A. Opera's advertising, which has a very similar look to the poster of Francesco Rosi's racy 1984 opera film (that starred, along with Julia Migenes, Plácido Domingo, who happens to be L.A. Opera's general manager and who conducted "Carmen" last time around).
The only names on the ad, clearly and rightly this year's draw, are soprano Ana María Martínez in the title role and music director James Conlon. Both come through, to a degree. Conlon conducts a smoothly fluid performance, slickly played by the first-rate L.A. Opera Orchestra, which finely slips along.
Long a L.A. Opera favorite, Martínez has been regularly appearing with the company since shortly after winning a prize in Domingo's 1995 Operalia contest and immediately becoming one of his favorite young singers. But she came to the attention of the inventive opera world before that as an unusually versatile soprano appearing in and recording Philip Glass' opera version of the Jean Cocteau film "La Belle et la Bête," which L.A. Opera, in its more enterprising guise, will present at the Theatre at Ace Hotel for Halloween (although not with Martínez).
As Carmen, Martínez has just the right duskiness of tone for a role best suited a mezzo-soprano. She brings admirable attention to line, phrasing and articulation. Onstage, in Habanera or dancing during her Chanson, she was always in assiduous control of movement, rather than evoking a chaotic force of nature.
In his program note about the opera, Conlon asks: "Who is Carmen and what does she represent?" Unfortunately, a questionnaire with such multiple choice possibilities (please tick more than one) as domineering temptress, lascivious free spirit, feminist force of nature, freedom fighter, merry thief, narcissist and opportunist doesn't seem to have been distributed to the principals in this production. In the end, Carmen can be likable or not. She cannot, however, not be noticed.
Martínez's carefully correct Carmen was noticed for her musicality, her thorough professionalism, rather than for a daring allure. She has a command onstage; indeed, she seemed to control everyone around her like an imperious leader, but this was the least convincing role she's had at L.A. Opera. Then again, it may have been a bad night for a native Puerto Rican who lives in Houston, with the force of nature right now meaning something very much more dangerous than that of a mere mortal femme fatal.
Nor did she seem to be helped by Daniels. The main impression to be taken away Saturday night was of a director beset with a mostly middling cast, those lumbering sets by Gerardo Trotti and better but still stereotypical costume updates by Denitsa Bliznakova throwing up his hands on this gloomy stage. Lacking the heat and sensual light of his earlier production, Daniels either ran out of ideas or found himself faced with a situation where ideas weren't workable.
As Carmen's besotted lover, Don José, Riccardo Massi came across as a big kid with a big voice, way out of his league with his hot lover and, being not too bright, easily offended. The chemistry may change dramatically when charismatic tenor Brandon Jovanovich (who stared in the 2013 opening night "Carmen") assumes the role on Sept. 20 for the final three of the seven performances.
Indeed, Massi and Amanda Woodbury's Micaëla, Don José's girl back home, seemed almost ideally suited for each other, although Daniels gave them both the bad habit of standing and singing to the audience (they weren't alone in this). A dark and buzzy bass, Alexander Vinogradov proved a gloomy toreador, Escamillo.
The heat and passion came elsewhere. Carmen's band of rebels were a lively and seductive bunch, especially the important young mezzo Kelly O'Connor, who was the gripping star of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's production of John Adams' "The Gospel According to the Other Mary." She has begun trying out the title role of "Carmen" (in a concert performance), but even here as Mercédès, she could bring Carmen-like conviction to a single word, "amour."
Daniels has a way with the Los Angeles Children's chorus, and they stole the show in the crowd scenes at the beginning and end of the opera. The L.A. Opera chorus was equally believable as the sultry women of the cigarette factory, rebels and bullfight crowd.
Is it too cynical to dismiss so provincial a "Carmen" as nothing more than box office bait? Demand was such that a seventh performance has been added, and pretty much all of the least expensive seats have already been sold.
Was the audience disappointed? Just about everyone in the orchestra section, where I sat, instantly rose to their feet the second the show was over.
"Carmen," furthermore, attracts newcomers — that was obvious by applause at the first big cadence of the orchestra Prélude. The Sept. 23 performance broadcast in high definition for free outdoors on the Santa Monica Pier and at Exposition Park are intended to spread the appeal of "Carmen" much further, and that is all the more reason to go all out.
Simply satisfying audiences isn't enough. They must be hooked. The bottom line can wait.
That said, the L.A. Opera's coming season does have considerable enticements, beginning, next month with Bizet's far less well-known "The Pearl Fishers" in a production that bewitched hard-to-bewitch New Yorkers at the Metropolitan Opera. Maybe we need two opening nights.
L.A. Opera's 'Carmen'
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20 and 28; 7 p.m. Sept. 23 (also broadcast free at Santa Monica Pier and Exposition Park); 2 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 1.
Price: $74-$374 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 972-8001 or LAOpera.org
Running time: 3 hours, 25 minutes