Solid-Gold Carmen Hits: The National Philharmonic at Strathmore, Saturday, January 9, 2010

Mezzo Kendall Gladen single-handedly elevated the National Philharmonic‘s concert performance of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday night from pleasant to compelling by playing the title character with her entire body. She commanded the stage physically, standing almost as tall as both her suitors, Daniel Snyder as the officer Don José and Dean Elzinga as the toreador Escamillo, and moving with force, confidence, and purpose at every moment. Not to put too fine a point on it, Gladen is pretty hot as well, and she embodied opera’s most celebrated seductress with flashing eyes, swiveling hips, languorous lounging, and a couple moments when her dress seemed about to malfunction in an attention-grabbing manner.

Happily, Gladen can really sing the part too, with a voice that rises to a clear top, falls to a thrillingly husky low register, and moves lithely in between. Occasionally, she dropped a note or lagged behind the orchestra in a diva moment, but she made lovely noises the whole time, and any temporary slip of control contributed to the overall conception of her character, as deep as it was.

For this was, as noted, a concert performance, and furthermore one that featured only the biggest “Carmen” hits, with Strathmore’s president and CEO Eliot Pfanstiehl providing narration to connect the story’s dots. (The intro text he read referred to presenting only the “best of the best” and described recitatives as making an opera “last until the wee hours of the morning,” which seemed overstatements of the case.) The selections highlighted only the broadest motivations of the characters: Carmen the sexpot, Don José the wavering weakling, Micaëla the innocent peasant, etc., allowing for little subtlety in characterization. It also had the effect of getting the audience in and out in a little under two-and-a-half hours, which I must admit has some appeal for me, even on a Saturday night. (I am getting older, and lamer, every day.)

The stage direction of Chia Patiño helped make the Carmen All-Stars (the Habanera, the Seguidilla, the Flower Song, et al.) as big and compelling as they could possibly be. Patiño, whose other work I have really enjoyed (1, 2), did a whole lot with just some generic costumes (Gladen in flattering dresses, Don Jose in formalwear when with his regiment, etc.), a strip of stage at the front, and some risers onto which the characters could climb (or lounge, in Carmen’s case). Though Gladen, appropriately, had the most arresting moves on Saturday (particularly in the Gypsy Song, where she was shaking it like a Polaroid picture), Snyder wandered around and turned about to emphasize Don José’s indecision, Theresa Santiago moved slowly to make Micaëla’s pleas more plaintive, and Elzinga stood ramrod-straight to make him an object around which the endlessly flittering Carmen could orbit. The interlude in which Carmen sang for Don José was (again, not to put too fine a point on it) damn sexy, making it a shock when the Don heeds the call to return to his precious regiment, with Gladen pouring on some remarkably vivid scorn. (The lack of supertitles did not in any way prevent Gladen from being in constant communication with the audience.)

No one else quite matched the vividness of Gladen’s singing on Saturday either. Still, Snyder has a fine voice and spun out his lines with style, while Santiago ably embodied her character with her pure soprano; both shone brightest in their Act I duet, “Parle-moi de ma mère,” their last renewal of tenderness before the Carmen explosion. Elzinga sounded a little strained at times but belted out “Toreador” with panache, and baritone James Shaffran did solid work took a couple minor characters.

The Nat Phil’s music director Piotr Gajewski kept it all running smoothly, shaping these well-known tunes with few surprises but with affectionate sensitivity. He got a typical pretty-good performance from his orchestra, with occasional lapses in ensemble balanced with moments of eloquence, particularly among the winds. The Nat Phil Chorale was weaker, frequently drowned out by the orchestra and singing without much body or precision when it wasn’t.

Still, one has to be grateful to the National Philharmonic for giving us Gladen; she’s done Carmen a bunch of other places, but not D.C. until Saturday night (as best I can tell). If someone wants to put Gladen in a full-scale production ’round these parts, I’d sure go see it, particularly if Patiño directed. I’d even sit through all those pesky recitatives!

TROY AIKMAN WRITES (PART OF) A CLASSICAL CONCERT REVIEW

“Joe, you just gotta love the adjustments these guys made at halftime, to really pull back on the percussion when they realized it’s just not going to work in this hall, this hall is too live for them to play the percussion like that. Those percussionists have a lot of heart and they want to contribute to the team, and they went out there and played more soft so the balance of the team could be better. And Joe, you just gotta love how those guys want to play as a team and really work to make this performance successful. Joe.”

MY BEEF WITH THE NATIONAL PHILHARMONIC’S NAME

I need to get this out there. I am from Silver Spring, which is in Montgomery County. I am proud of this. The National Philharmonic is a local-level orchestra located in Montgomery County, but rather than take a name reflecting that fact (like the Annapolis Symphony, or the Arlington Symphony, or the Prince George’s Philharmonic), they have for some reason chosen a name reflecting an ambition that is beyond their grasp. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a fine local orchestra, as the Nat Phil is, and even less wrong with being from Montgomery County. Call it the Montgomery Symphony and rep where you’re from.

O.P.P.: Joe Banno for the Post. Mr. Banno knows a lot more about opera than I do.

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