Sarasota Opera stumbles with a clinker of a “Carmen”

Sarasota Opera is known to mavens far beyond the borders of the toney retirement community on Florida’s Gulf Coast for several reasons: the superb conducting and ambitious artistic leadership of Victor DeRenzi, the company’s long-running cycle of Verdi’s complete operas and its welcome new series of American works, launched last year with Robert Ward’s The Crucible.

Sarasota Opera’s record in populist non-Verdi works has been more mixed, and so it proved again with Friday night’s uninspired production of Bizet’s Carmen. Indifferently acted and directed, with singing that ranged from passable to appalling, this wayward Carmen marked one of the lowlights of recent Sarasota seasons.

In the title role, Fredrika Brillembourg gave the impression of a young singer trying her best but undone by a manifest lack of seasoning and experience. Her mezzo sounded far too high and light for this role with a wan, colorless quality lacking vibrancy and distinction.

The slender, attractive singer looked the part of the free-living and -loving gypsy temptress, but brought little dramatic intensity to the role. Smiling and coquettish, Brillembourg seemed to be playing Zerlina more than Carmen and was far too precious—more of a TV sitcom Carmen than the dangerous mankiller who leads the good-hearted solider Don Jose to ruin.

Antonio Nagore proved woefully miscast vocally as the ill-fated Don Jose. His big but worn tenor had little Gallic sweetness, sustaining power or refinement. Nagore was stiff as an actor, only belatedly bringing some dramatic involvement to Don Jose’s dissipated desperation.

Danielle Walker has the right look for the innocent good girl Micaela, but provided little vocal pleasure with a hard-toned, shallow soprano. We best draw a veil over the performance of Carlos Monzon as a light-in-the-vocal loafers Escamillo. With all the gifted singers around looking for work, how do people like this get booked for major roles by a respected regional company?

Martha Collins’ stage direction at times handled the bustle well but too often relied on tired stand-and-deliver at the footlights. The final confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose was a train wreck, so awkwardly blocked and incompetently staged by Collins it made a dull anticlimax out of what should be one of the most riveting scenes in all opera.

Even having DeRenzi in the pit couldn’t save this show. His fluent and elegant conducting, David P. Gordon’s atmospheric sets, the masterly lighting of  Ken Yunker, and superb singing of the chorus under Roger L. Bingaman provided the most professional elements in an otherwise sad and disappointing evening.

There are two more Carmen performances at 1:30 March 20 and 7:30 p.m. March 24.

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