Opera Philadelphia: “Carmen” is a show stopper

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"Carmen" mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack sings to the soldiers
This is Daniela Mack’s fourth time in the role of Carmen

Opera Philadelphia presents Carmen, George Bizet’s opera. It is full of interesting persons. There are trifling, groping soldiers; flirting, sexy gypsy women that work at the cigarette factory; the handsome and dedicated solder, Don José; the shy but determined Micaëla; but even the famous bullfighter, Escamillo, who has legions of his own, gets overshadowed by the tour-de-force that is the lead. Carmen is played by Daniela Mack. She literally steals the show.

"Carmen" mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack sings at Lillas Pastia
“Carmen” mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack sings at Lillas Pastia

This is Daniela’s fourth time in the role of Carmen. And I imagine every single time she performs it, she adds just a little “more” to the character’s development. An extra look off stage, a smile brought on by an inside joke that’s just between herself and Carmen. Every single second that goes by when Carmen graces the stage is wholly appreciated.

The sets are beautiful and complex. The setting is the 1950s in “Little Havana.” The scene also adds accessibility to the audience, and continues to prove that Opera Philadelphia actively creates new lovers of opera with every production! Even the “supertitles,” the translations above the stage, were not literal “translations” of French to English. They were for the most part just the main points of what was being sung or spoken so that the audience doesn’t feel compelled to constantly look up.

"Carmen" mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack and tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson
“Carmen” mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack and tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson

Some highly memorable moments: Carmen’s opening aria and one of the most widely recognized, Habanera, or “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” is directed to her many devoted admirers. All are enamored save one, Don José. He doesn’t seem to be paying her any mind. This doesn’t work for her so she amps up the energy and forces him to pay attention. Or when Micaëla, comes to seek out Don José with a note from his mother, but when she kisses him, his only thought is of his mom. Kind of takes the wind out of her sails. But the humor is wonderful.

There is the catfight in the factory, followed by the arrest and then escape of Carmen… but the arrest of Don José. Months later he gets out of jail. And at this point he is so smitten it is almost difficult to watch. Unless you are Carmen, then it’s your oxygen, your life force… she wields her sex-appeal with the precision of surgeon. But the mess left behind, to hearts and minds, is like the operating room floor.

"Carmen's" Don Jose -tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson and Escamillo as baritone Adrian Timpau
“Carmen’s” Don Jose – tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson and Escamillo as baritone Adrian Timpau
The cast in Carmen

Don José, played by Evan LeRoy Johnson, in his Opera Philadelphia debut, does a beautiful job portraying the do-good Corporal who falls helplessly in love with Carmen. His anguish is truly laid to bare in the last act when all hope is gone. Adrian Timpan, also in his debut with the company, brings the flamboyant bullfighter, Escamillo, to life. He enters the stage in nothing short of a “rebel without a cause” moment and as fate would have it sees Carmen only to be entranced by her as well.

All the supporting cast members were stellar. If I had the space I’d call them all out. But also like many of those characters I keep coming back to Carmen.

Does Carmen really believe she deserves love? 

Before seeing Daniela’s rendition, I always thought of Carmen as a sensual yet selfish, man-eater who really doesn’t care about those that she leads on only to push off a cliff of despair later. But now, and I believe this is testament to her acting and love of this character, Daniela has shown me the scared, often haunted and acting out child inside. Does Carmen really believe she deserves love? She’ll push and hurt anyone who is good for her away, before they get to really know her. It’s familiar, tragic, and heart wrenchingly beautiful.

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Daniela and asked how she prepares for a character like Carmen. “Approaching something like Carmen that has been such a huge part of the canon, and is in everybody’s ear. Anybody who’s ever heard any of the music has some great singer that they hear in their mind. Myself included. The challenge in something like this is just getting away from that, and really diving in to make it my own and putting forth my own interpretation, while still honoring what has come before.”

To which I say, Well done, Daniela Mack, you owned it!

Opera Philadelphia’s production of Carmen will be at the Academy of Music through May 6, 2018. Tickets are online.

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