Review: Richmond Symphony ‘Carmen’

Steven Smith conducting
May 18, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Steven Smith concluded his tenure as music director of the Richmond Symphony without the usual onstage formalities, opting instead for high drama in a concert presentation of Bizet’s “Carmen.” Concert opera is an unusual choice of leave-taking for a symphonic conductor, but not a unique one for this orchestra: Edgar Schenkman, its first music director, led Puccini’s “Tosca” in his 1971 farewell performance.

Denyce Graves, the Washington-born mezzo-soprano who has made Carmen one of her signature roles, was joined by a cast of singers from Virginia Opera, the Richmond Symphony Chorus and the Greater Richmond Children’s Choir in a condensation of “Carmen” whose dramatic intensity more than compensated for the absence of sets, costumes (other than Graves’ gypsy garb) and theatrical lighting.

Smith and the orchestra he has molded over the past decade were as stellar as any of the singers. Outside major opera houses with large orchestra pits, the potent and richly colorful orchestration that Bizet created for “Carmen” rarely comes across with its full impact. In this performance, the orchestra was a real presence as a scene- and mood-painter, as the composer surely intended it to be. Instruments, especially woodwinds, conveyed as much character as the singers.

A particular fascination in this performance was seeing and hearing what Graves made of a role she has played so many times, this time without the intervention of a stage director. Her own Carmen conveys sensuality not so much as an essence of the character but as a liberating force. She will have her way not just with men, but despite them. This vividly empowered Carmen suits Graves’ formidable voice and physical presence.

That voice proved a bit brassy for the “Habañera” that introduces the character in Act 1, better suited to the animated “Chanson Bohème” opening Act 2, and best in confrontational scenes and her most fevered duets with Don José, her hopelessly smitten lover and eventual nemesis.

Sean Panikkar, as Don José, was Graves’ vocal and dramatic match in those scenes, boasting a ringing, focused tenor voice and arresting stage presence that promise a stellar career. Similarly bright prospects seem in store for Will Liverman, who brought a commanding yet flexible bass voice to the role of Escamillo, the toreador for whom Carmen jilts Don José.

The rest of the cast was in fine voice and convincing character. April Martin, Melissa Bonetti, Logan Webber and John Tibbetts were an animated quartet of gypsy revelers and schemers, Martin and Bullock especially so in their ensemble numbers with Graves’ Carmen. Joshua Arky as Zuniga, Don José’s commanding officer, and Phillip Bullock, as the guardsman Moralès, sang and acted their smaller roles to good effect. Sarah Tucker was, to my ears, miscast as Micaëla, the young hometown girl whose affection for Don José is returned luke-warm; her strongly projected soprano voice conveyed little of the shyness and vulnerability of the character.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus was very much a co-star in this show, bringing lusty collective tone and genuine characterization to their crowd-scene roles. The women were gloriously riotous as the cigarette-factory girls relating the (unseen) Act 1 fight scene between Carmen and her co-worker Manuelita.

The late James Erb, founder of the Symphony Chorus, once told me that he often sought more “operatic,” or dramatically infused, character and projection from the ensemble. He would have been gratified to hear this performance, prepared by his successor, Erin Freeman.

The Greater Richmond Children’s Choir, prepared by its director, Crystal Jonkman, was in good voice, but a bit too vocally well-scrubbed to portray Bizet’s gang of street urchins. The ensemble, even though placed at the front of the stage arrayed around the conductor, was at times overpowered by the orchestra, one of the performance’s few instances of imbalance between voices and instrumentation.

Smith has demonstrated secure command of complex scores and combinations of orchestra and voices numerous times in his conducting career here. This “Carmen,” certainly among the highlights of his tenure, was more celebratory than valedictory.

The orchestra he leaves is in prime performing shape, disciplined in ensemble and flexible in style, capable of timbral refinement as well as sonic power. The Richmond Symphony punches well above its weight among American orchestras, and Smith deserves much of the credit for that. For that, and no less for his imaginative programming, he will be sorely missed.

As Smith leaves the symphony, so do two of its most long-tenured musicians: Paul A. Bedell, its principal double-bassist, and Catherine Hubert Foster, who for many years served as principal second violinist, subsequently as a section player.

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