A gripping “Carmen” at West Bay Opera

Artistic Director José Luis Moscovich led an out-sized production of the opera Carmen on Saturday, June 2 in the South Bay’s intimate Lucie Stern Theater. Brought to musical life by French composer Georges Bizet from a novel by Prosper Mérimée, this steamy pot-boiler was the backdrop for one of the best casts that I have heard here.

And hearing that cast in this modest theater was a triumph of nuance over the usual operatic excess, with the title character’s range and deft pianissimos immersing us into the experience. Although that experience was, admittedly, a little creepy, like the TV reality shows of our own day (think “Teen Mom” meets “Cheaters”), we were asked to let go of our morals and descend into the minds of a careless femme fatale and her abusive lover, but it was a descent that was propelled by truly divine music.

Rather than the usual reduction of an orchestral score, Moscovich simultaneously conducted a pit orchestra of strings and two additional groups of winds and brass on two-level tiers on the left and right edges of the stage. This enabled him to do justice to the music while enjoying the acoustics and immediacy of the house, and it was particularly apt for the colorful flavors of Bizet’s orchestration.

Set in Southern Spain, Carmen explored the staccato rhythms of Flamenco and the middle-east influenced tonalities of Spanish Gypsies, and all immersed in a very French school of music. Bizet added a flair for mood and color, weaving “leitmotifs” through the whole that we associate with each character, much as Wagner was then exploring in neighboring Germany.

Nikola Printz and Salvatore Atti in Carmen at West Bay Opera; photo by Otak Jump

And so the ability to present the full score was essential to this production, with lovely flute duets and English horn, oboe and bassoon harmonies. The tiered performers is a strategy that Moscovich has employed over the last several years, and it did not interfere with the on-stage action, as those musicians in the wing tiers were shrouded in darkness with their stands carefully back lit. (Actually, I would have been just as happy to have them spotlit so that I could watch them and go more deeply into Bizet’s evocative score.)

Nikola Printz starred as Carmen, the Gypsy whose heart was as unfettered as the breezes, singing with a mesmerizing and earthy mezzo. There was a streak of cruelty in her freedom, in her faithfulness to her own heart. She inhabited a passion that was completely without compassion… but fiery! Her big top notes burned down into soft embers that penetrated right through us.

Salvatore Atti played the moth to her flame as Don José, a tenor with a dry and dusty beauty. In his big solo he made it dangerously easy to empathize with him, even as he stalked the woman he loved (or loved to hate).

And you probably can guess how these things would end, with jealousy and the straitjackets of society creating a power imbalance that fueled the war between the sexes. After Carmen dropped him for a hot new Toreador, Don José’s obsession spiraled inevitably downward into murder.

That Toreador was Krassen Karagiozov, a svelte baritone who is always a delight around the Bay Area. Tall and dangerously handsome, his larger-than-life voice was perfect for a bull fighter who is completely full of himself, and he delivered the well-known song of the Toreador with panache. And that, of course, helped propel Don José’s jealousy.

Arrayed against that train wreck, and giving it definition, is Micaela, a chaste country girl who is in love with Don José. María Fernanda Brea sang that soprano role with delicate upper notes and  a winsome manner. Those wholesome hiccups matched Printz’ simmering growls, underlining the poles of love.

Nikola Printz and Salvatore Atti in Carmen at West Bay Opera; photo by Otak Jump

Supporting this artful quartet was Kiril Havezov as the Lieutenant of Dragoons, the voice of the Law and a favorite Bay Area Bass. Four more excellent singers took the smaller roles: Maya Kherani and Anna Yelizarova as fellow gypsy singers (and really good dancers!), and baritone Jackson Beaman and tenor Carmello Tringali as partisans or dragoons as needed.

Bizet, who died of a heart attack at the age of 37 before finding out that his opera was a huge success, wrote several of the World’s most popular opera arias, including Carmen’s sultry “Habanera,” where descending half-steps would lead one to agree that, “love is a rebellious bird/that none can tame… A gypsy child/ that has never known the law.” Printz was excellent here, sultry and commanding.

This production of Carmen was sold out for all four performances, and completes this season in style. Next October they will open with the much-loved La Boheme, with tickets and information available at westbayopera.org.

—Adam Broner

Both photos of Nikola Printz and Salvatore Atti by Otak Jump.