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Jaws of Doom II: Carmen & Don José

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Unable to resist the life-and-death stakes of Carmen's duo-finale, performers eagerly import that number into the concert hall. The overarching challenge of playing out terminal conflict in an environment that thwarts efforts at theatrical pretense calls for ingenious resolution. Beyond embodying the increasingly hostile impatience which drives the scene, how can Carmen and Don José fulfill their three concluding actions—her jettisoning his ring, his act of murder, and her death—on the concert platform?

The most successful concert performances are motivated by a trust in the music to carry the drama. In the aurally-dominant context of a concert setting, singers have the opportunity to invest in the music-making—mining tone, text, and pacing for expressive purposes—in ways denied them when faced with the physical rigors of theatrical production. (Singers' in-the-moment needs for rhythmic flexibility gain particular attention when heeded by a responsive pianist partner.)

Physical characterization should arise from the awareness that this is Carmen and Don José's ultimate dialogue. The musical interpretation can be enhanced by the body language of two people with a shared history engaging in volatile communication. However, the athletics obligatory in a theatrical context—migratory patterns, manual contact, actions requiring props—can easily overwhelm the material in concert; they are best left in vestigial form if not dispensed with entirely.

On to a pair of concert performances from the Eastern Hemisphere, one including chorus and orchestra, the other supported by piano, the two separated by 45 years.

2019/06/05 Zaryadye Hall, Moscow

Presented by the Elena Obraztsova Foundation to commemorate her 80th birthday

Chorus and Orchestra of the Novaya Opera

c. Jan Latham-Koenig

Don José: Ivan Gyngazov

Carmen: Ksenia Dudnikova

Zaryadye Hall, in the shadow of the Kremlin, is the acoustically opulent setting for this performance rich in musical felicities. The Novaya Opera chorus and orchestra are a true team in sound, superbly assured as the scene's «third character» under the battuta of artistic director Jan Latham-Koenig. (From the chorus one might want final notes of phrases to be sustained for their full value and a less marcato delivery overall without shirking praise for their irreproachable musical discipline.) The orchestra achieves impressive ensemble blend by virtue of confident tone carried by unanimous rhythmic reflexes.

As Carmen and Don José, two exciting artists with still-burgeoning international careers. Ksenia Dudnikova and Ivan Gyngazov sing comprehensible French (with a slight yet not unpleasant Slavic inflection) and wisely trust the power of suggestion over any temptation towards histronics. Carmen's throwing away of the ring is merely Ms. Dudnikova letting the command «Tiens!» drop from her lips; the murder is Mr. Gyngazov advancing stage left towards Ms. Dudnikova, followed by a few steps of tense face-off, and brought to an end when Ms. Dudnikova sits down with her back to the audience.

Frank assessment would acknowledge Mr. Gyngazov's level as closer to promise than polish—final notes of phrasal clauses (both at phrase endings and within phrases) are relinquished with an audible breath release, creating an impression of short-windedness. But it would be churlish to deny his manfully dark timbre, the rousing swell of his voice in José's frequent inclines through the passaggio, and his obvious participation in the drama's sights and sounds.

An international Amneris, Eboli, and Principessa di Bouillon, Ms. Dudnikova merits generous plaudits both for her instrument and deployment thereof. «Arresting» is the first word that springs to mind when appreciating her ripe timbre, unforced voce di petto, and triumphant acuti. Yet Ms. Dudnikova amplifies her gifts by confronting Carmen's challenging vocal line with laudable sprezzatura, refusing to force and instead handling her robust voice with beguiling nonchalance. The role's constant sashaying between registers undoes many a singer but not Ms. Dudnikova, who reaches across her range in unmarred tones. Brava and let's have more of Ms. Dudnikova in the major Western venues!

1974 (10/12 and/or 19) NHK Hall, Tokyo

pf. Robert Sutherland

Don José: Giuseppe di Stefano

Carmen: Maria Callas

Singers at all levels of training are frequently told to «be in the moment», i.e. to move past any feelings of self-consciousness and instead fully commit in deed and thought to the act of performing. It's a tall order too seldom fulfilled by singers unblemished of voice but in questionable command of their material. By contrast, the video footage of the Callas/di Stefano '73-74 concert tour reveals this erstwhile Heldenpaar of Italian opera staunchly «in the moment» throughout, their performance choices arising from intense familiarity with their repertoire and refusing to be distracted by their irreparable vocal tarnish.

Two series of performances were taped for television, late November-early December 1973 London and October 1974 Tokyo. In the earlier footage their pianist is Ivor Newton, the venerable octogenarian accompanist whose experience lay in art song, arias, and chamber music. Newton was not the best fit for Callas and di Stefano, frequently restraining their impulses with his insufficient flexibility of response (constraining them to have to wait for him) and inadequate familiarity with the material (betrayed by odd tempi and unacceptable mistakes). In the latter footage they are partnered by young Robert Sutherland, a dynamic keyboard artist who unhesitatingly supplies whatever momentum they need. Callas and di Stefano are free to shape the music very personally, with more rubato than possible in the opera house, thanks to Sutherland's musical authority.

Our divi seem utterly uninhibited by nerves; one curbs the temptation to give a «play-by-play» of their performance. Pippo is fearlessly steady-toned, without a hint of beat or wobble, coloring his phrases with ample cabaret strokes. (Observers of tenorial technique should note that instead of Bizet's repeated «tout! tu m'entends?» Pippo sings «oui! tu m'entends?», using the /i/ vowel to thrust his voice towards that part of the voice.) Callas is vocally more secure than she had been the previous year, the middle voice more firmly knit together—less «in-and-out» of phonation—and no longer trying to ride chest resonance so high in the voice. Her stage demeanor is hearteningly defiant, and she adroitly suggests Carmen's final actions, acknowledging and then throwing away the (imaginary) ring, and upon Carmen's death turning her back to the audience.

At every step of the way, these artists are completely absorbed in the music, the language (itself a music), and the physical expression necessary to punctuate the drama. One savors how they articulate their individual text, how they absorb their partner's text, how they gesture in support of their characters' ideas, and the prodigious body commitment they summon in order to sing. And what one cannot see is anxiety over how their voices are working—one scrutinizes the footage in vain for any sort of «tell».

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