Review: Opera Company of Philadelphia's 'Carmen'

By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Music Critic

By some estimates, the Opera Company of Philadelphia's outdoor simulcast of Carmen at Independence Mall on Friday was a washout, literally, due to a steady, sometimes-heavy, always-chilly rain that began at the end of Act I and continued through the evening. An estimated crowd of 3,000 during the overture dwindled, by the end, to 200 -- the relative few who arrived with full rain gear and umbrellas. A few less-well-equipped opera fans found places to stand under nearby awnings. Can anybody have an operatic experience under such circumstances?

"I've seen Carmen 10 times and I stayed in the rain because the voices are great. It was a beautiful performance," said Dr. Albert Sarkessian, a family practioner based in Melrose Park.

"Worth the wait" and "fabulous" was the conclusion of his raincoat-swathed granddaughter Juliet, 16.

Simulcast director Bruce Bryant wouldn't have been surprised to hear this. Stationed inside a truck parked in front of the Academy of Music with monitors representing each camera, Bryant marveled during the first intermission at how well all the singers were coming off on screen. "The camera loves all of them," he said. That's unusual in a world known for vertically-challenged tenors and late-middle-aged sopranos trying to pass themselves off as teenager.

What the warm, dry Academy of Music audience might have missed: When dressed up for a bullfight in the final act, Rinat Shaham (Carmen) became a Penelope Cruz look-a-like. Ailyn Perez, playing the good girl Micaela, sang her Act III aria as a deeply private prayer, and with the physical subtleties of someone acquainted with how these things work in the world of Roman Catholicism.

Part of the Independence Mall appeal was the price: There wasn't one. A pair of Drexel University physical therapy students with limited exposure to opera found out about the event on the university's website and gave it try. A Chinese family of five made the trip from Warrington, having been to the Metropolitan Opera movie-theater simulcasts. Interestingly, the main instigators were the teenage daughters, who seem to think of Carmen in the same genre as Wicked.

Artistically, the big picture, both indoors and out, was excellent. Longtime Opera Company subscribers expressed relief that the David Gately-directed production had none of the high-concept missteps of the company's last Carmen, in 2002. When the curtain came rose on a traditional representation of Old-Europe Seville, one patron whispered to another, "It's better already!" The Allen Charles Klein set resembled the view from a Seville side street with all kinds of angular buildings that border on a bull ring with the name of the star bullfighter, Escamillo, written everywhere. In the final act, the set even took on cinematic veracity on the simulcast screen; at times, it could have been shot on location.

The often-iffy opera orchestra was in polished form under Corrado Rovaris. Though the simulcast's sound system gave the voices a strident edge, the singers themselves were uniformly up to their roles in ways that made Bizet's great tunes emerge in dramatically-meaningful ways. The superbly plotted opera about a gypsy seducing the mentally unstable soldier Don Jose pressed all the right buttons, and even subsidiary characters were strongly drawn, even if the crowd scenes had momentary clumsiness. The final death scene had a welcome surprise: After daring Don Jose to kill her, Carmen begins to walk off, laughing sardonically, only to get an almost offhanded knife in the stomach.

Philadelphia now enjoys something of considerable artistic significance that doesn't just satisfy old guard operagoers but has considerable outreach value to neophytes.

Few casts are this consistent. Though Shaham projected plenty of raw sex in her portrayal of Carmen, she also had a cat-and-mouse wit that gave the character an extra level, besides having the kind of true, deep mezzo-soprano voice that gives the role a gravity unheard since Marilyn Horne. One touch I loved: Instead of playing castinets while dancing for Don Jose, she broke a plate and used the pieces as a makeshift rhythm instrument. David Pomeroy's Don Jose had a new-car smell: The voice was fresh and unlabored with a particularly gratifying bloom in the upper range. Details were lacking, however, along with that extra ounce of irrational desperation. None of Escamillo's vocal challenges were apparent in the excellent singing of Jonathan Beyer, even if his stage charisma didn't match Shaham's.

The best performance came from Perez in the secondary role of Don Jose's possible-fiance Micaela.Thanks to her innate stage allure, Perez' Micaela was among the few I've seen that pose serious competition for Carmen. Often, Micaela represents middle-class boredom; using the duskier qualities of her soprano voice, Perez became the voice of sanity. She has often been theatrically radiant and vocally captivating since arriving here as an Academy of Vocal Arts student. On Friday, something more happened: Singer and character merged with seamless simplicity. This is the sort of thing opera people live for. The rain didn't stop when she sang, but it seemed to.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at

Further performances: Late Saturday IATSE Local 8 -- which represents stagehands, box office and wardrobe workers, and ushers at the Kimmel Center, the Academy of Music's landlord -- agreed to suspend strike action for a week, which will allow performances on Sunday, Wednesday and Oct. 9 to take place as scheduled. For information regarding the Oct. 14 performance, look for upates at