Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Pretty Girls Make Graves

July 14, 2008

Stuart Skelton and Denyce Graves at the Hollywood Bowl
Photo : Jay L. Clendenin/LAT 2008

In case it escaped your notice, the Hollywood Bowl season has kicked off already. That annual ritual that is best viewed as penance for the typically adventurous and modern programming the L.A. Philharmonic presents throughout the rest of the year. In the summer, however, there are a lot of $1 bench seats to fill so Vegas-style career boosters—and Gershwin—are the rule, not the exception. Sunday was the Phil’s token opera program, this year featuring a concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen sans spoken dialogue. It wasn’t a completely thrown-together affair, and, frankly, it was quite good. In fact it was better than the last time L.A. Opera staged Carmen and I’ll bet good money it will be better than the revival the company will subject us all to in December.

This is mostly due to a strong cast under the direction of conductor Bramwell Tovey. Tovey certainly isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of Carmen, and his obligatory presentation of the synopsis before each act in this otherwise supertitle-free evening left much to be desired. But the L.A. Philharmonic sounded great under his baton—light and surprisingly well-amplified overall. Of course the big-ticket star in the cast was Denyce Graves. Say what you will about the state of her voice, which was froggy in a few key stretches, she owns this role. Her command of the material and overall performance filled the humongous amphitheater with warmth and light. Granted it could be a bit over the top, but trust me, it looked more than fine from the cheap(er) seats. In fact, while she may not have been the strongest musically, she dominated the stage over the evening's three hours that involved four different gown changes.

The rest of the cast was excellent. Stuart Skelton, who sang Don José, is not well known in these parts despite numerous appearances abroad, but he held his own against Graves' shenanigans. His acting may have been a little stiff, but his voice was often heartbreakingly good. This was a Don José who was decidedly more broken than brutal, but it works for him. Jessica Rivera was Micaëla, and Mariusz Kwiecien sang Escamillo in what seems like luxury casting for this one-off concert performance. Both sounded great in the huge space and they, like everyone else, took well to the amplification. I could definitely do with some more of both of them in properly-staged settings. I think it’s highway robbery that Rivera isn’t appearing in Adams’ Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera this fall. It’s their loss.

So it was one of those unusual evenings. All the normal irritations of the Bowl, like people talking and unwrapping their prepackaged picnic dinners during the show, seemed to melt away in the light of a very strong and surprisingly highly enjoyable performance. Even if all those dollar seats weren’t filled.


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