Frank Corsaro's gimmicky, grimy, updated staging of Bizet's "Carmen," which the New York City Opera is presenting these days at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, doesn't seem to leave much room for individual interpretation.
At the opening Tuesday, the hard-working, eminently competent cast tended to get lost amid the director's mod, self-indulgent, violently anti-musical imposition of Spanish Civil War cliches.
At the second performance, Thursday night, a new quartet of principals got submerged in the same directorial murk. A few nuances may have shifted, but the general anonymity remained.
War is hell.
It is possible, of course, that really extraordinary singing actors could assert their personalities even when forced into Corsaro's dramatic straitjackets. Extraordinary singing actors, unfortunately, are not in generous supply on the current City Opera roster.
Janis Eckhart, who took over the title role from Susanne Marsee, is young, attractive and spunky, a bit more playful than her immediate predecessor and obviously amenable to a broad vocabulary of 1936-vamp cliches.
On this occasion, she struck poses effectively but hardly developed a character. The suggestion of innate strength eluded her, as did a sense of tragedy and a persuasive command of the French text. For some strange reason, she distorted the language more in the music than in the dialogue (City Opera has adopted a modified reduction of the original Opera Comique edition).
Vocally, she used a rather thick, dark and mushy mezzo-soprano to score the usual points with modest impact.
Robert Grayson, the unhappy Jose, seemed tentative and unwieldy at the outset. He mustered considerable fervor and bright, open tone for the heroic outbursts of the second act, however, and sustained a decent aura of desperate urgency to the end.
Ruth Golden introduced yet another Micaela who simpered sweetly and sang blandly.
All three artists, not incidentally, hail from Southern California.
Stanley Wexler, familiar to San Francisco audiences, brought a slender, hollow-sounding basso to the boozy swagger of Escamillo and a wobble to the pressurized climaxes.
Christopher Keene conducted with more expressive sensitivity than he had revealed on opening night but still seemed needlessly rigid. The New York orchestra, apart from a disastrous flute in the third-act prelude, showed comparable signs of improvement and basked in the pit-favored glories of the Segerstrom Hall acoustic.
Familiarity with Corsaro's theatrical innovations does not breed contentment. Certain details, in fact, breed befuddlement.
Contrary to Bizet's wishes, Zuniga is beaten and mauled by the resident Gypsies at the end of the inn scene, then bayoneted by the wildly jealous Jose. The bad guy falls in a lifeless heap as the carefree ensemble sings its pretty, contextually ridiculous ode to the joys of liberty.
So far, so bad. But we missed something the first time. In the last act, Zuniga strolls back onstage with a cane, big as life and just as mean. They must have had marvelous doctors in Franco's Seville.
Even stranger is the final tableau. The deranged Jose holds a knife to Carmen's pretty throat. Her protective comrades surround the pair and threaten Jose with all manner of artillery. Then, for no apparent reason, they all put down their guns and traipse into the bull ring, abandoning Carmen to the cruelest of fates.
With friends like that. . . .
Lots of Orange County opera-lovers, incidentally, missed the bloody denouement. Members of the audience began to depart after Act I. The exodus might have been avoided, at least in part, if the company had tightened the proceedings. Given the obvious flexibility of Franco Colavecchia's flimsy sets, three intermissions seemed about two too many.