Second 'Carmen': More Voice, Less Drama

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Another day, another "Carmen." Another "Carmen," another Carmen. . . .

When Opera Pacific opened its 10th anniversary season Saturday night, Bizet's hardy perennial emerged as an extraordinarily compelling, extraordinarily intimate study of destructive passion.

The Chilean mezzo-soprano Graciela Araya played the title role with verismo bravado that ignored the usual sex-bomb cliches and denied the usual operatic platitudes. The American tenor Patrick Denniston complemented her as a tall and handsome Don Jose tormented by his own weakness as well as by her brazen allure.

The values changed drastically on Sunday afternoon when Irina Mishura assumed the heroine's plunging neckline and castanets while Eduardo Villa became her fatally lovesick victim. The vocal standards were high. The dramatic impulses took a turn back in the direction of convention.

Mishura, trained in Soviet Moldavia, neither looks nor sounds like her predecessor. She has the good sense to do things her own estimable way.

Where Araya was feverish and funny, Mishura is cool and statuesque. Essentially impetuous, Araya thought nothing of dashing across the stage and hurling herself into a startled Jose's arms, wrapping her legs around his waist upon arrival. Mishura is far too dignified, too stately to attempt anything like that.

Whereas Araya interpolated several key passages of the original spoken dialogue, Mishura adhered, for better or worse, to the Guiraud recitatives throughout. While Araya wore her sexuality like a proud badge, Mishura cloaked hers in handsome dignity.

The result wasn't as consistently interesting, as original or as sensual as an idealist might have hoped. Still, one had to admire the grandeur of Mishura's Carmen, not to mention her steadiness and the sheer opulence of her vocalism.

The sound at her command is heroic in proportion, even in scale, fresh in timbre and responsive to telling shifts in color. One would like to hear her in Wagner.

It doesn't take much of stretch to imagine Villa excelling in Wagner, too, or at least as Verdi's Otello. The tenor from East Los Angeles has a huge, dark, slightly rough voice capable of emphatic thrust as well as a bona fide ring. He also happens to be a conscientious musician, willing to take a valiant stab at the pianissimo B-flat that crowns the Flower Song.

Villa isn't exactly a subtle actor, and Jose's canary uniform is unkind to his ample physique. Still, he gives an honest, increasingly poignant performance, and serves notice of possible glory in the barren fields of Heldentenor battle.

Otherwise, Orange County gave us "Carmen" business as usual--good business--with Gregg Baker returning as an uncommonly dapper Escamillo and Laurinda Nikkel repeating her bland but pretty Micaela. Mark Gibson again conducted with propulsive flair.

* "Carmen," presented by Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Remaining performances: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. (Mishura and Villa Saturday appear Saturday only). $15 to $85. (714) 556-2787.

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