The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Despite overly traditional staging, the Madison Opera’s “Carmen” beguiled and bewitched through the outstanding singing | November 7, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy attended Sunday’s sold-out performance of “Carmen” by the Madison Opera and filed the following review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

When I learned that Madison Opera was going to produce Bizet‘s “Carmen,” I was not surprised. It is annually one of the most frequently performed operas internationally, and it is a surefire vehicle for filling seats. It is safe.

On the other hand, once one watches repeated performances of an old favorite, the appeal can diminish. One advantage of an opera is that novel approaches to the production can prevent a warhorse from becoming stale.

I would love to say that the approach both musically and dramatically to this production of “Carmen” broke new ground, but it did not. In fact, the production was as traditional as could be. (Below is the main set, rented from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)

I attended a performance of “Carmen” in Tucson a couple of years ago, and the conductor Keitaro Harada breathed new life into the familiar music through interesting tempi and finely nuanced dynamics.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo  by Prasad) conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a perfectly fine and occasionally uplifting manner, but there was little new to learn from his approach. The purely instrumental entr’actes shimmered, but during the rest of the opera the singing was at the forefront.

Maestro Harada (below), whom Madison should be actively courting, is currently conducting “Carmen” in Sofia, and the accompanying publicity clip in the YouTube video at the bottom (bear with the Bulgarian commentary) shows that the production is unconventional in its approach although it clearly is still “Carmen.” I would have enjoyed something other than the ultra-traditional staging and sets experienced here in Madison.

At times the production was so hackneyed and hokey that I chuckled to myself – ersatz flamenco dancing, the fluttering of fans, all of the cigarette factory girls with cigarettes dangling from their lips, unconvincing fight scenes, annoying children running across the stage, dreary costumes that hardly reminded me of Seville. And I could go on.

Yet “Carmen” has a way of drawing one in despite oneself. The music is marvelous, and the singing was uniformly excellent.

The four principals were luminous both in their solo pieces and ensembles. Cecelia Violetta López as Micaëla (below right) was lustrous in her two arias as well as in her duet with Sean Panikkar’s Don José (below left).

Panikkar started the performance off with little flair, but from the time he became besotted with Carmen toward the end of the first act he was on fire. He then maintained a high degree of passion and zest in his vocal performance.

Corey Crider (below right) was a wonderful Escamillo, singing his toréador role with great élan despite his unfortunate costumes.

And Aleks Romano (below) as Carmen made the most of her complex character. Her singing was luscious, and her acting – particularly her use of her expressive eyes – was terrific.

Likewise, the lesser roles – Thomas Forde as Zuniga, Benjamin Liupaogo as Remendado, Erik Earl Larson as Dancaïre, a radiant Anna Polum as Fransquita, and Megan Le Romero as Mercédès – were equally well sung. The ensemble work in the quintet at the end of Act II and in the card scene was outstanding.

The chorus (below) sounded terrific throughout, although the women’s costumes and the stage direction made the choristers appear ludicrous as times.

When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations. Likewise, its music still bewitched me in much the same way as Carmen inexplicably bewitched hapless Don José (below).

But I seem to always wish for more – more compelling productions, more daring music making, more risk-taking.

I do look forward to this coming spring’s production of “Florencia en el Amazonas.” The recording is captivating, and the opera’s performances have pleased a wide variety of audiences by all accounts. And it is something new. Hallelujah!

Did you go to “Carmen”? 

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Michael Tilson Thomas is retiring as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He’s about 70. Maestro DeMain is no MTT.


    Comment by fflambeau — November 11, 2017 @ 10:39 pm

  2. Well, I attended the Sunday performance of this traditional production and it sure seemed to me that the audience loved it, as did I. Generally, I prefer traditional settings because they don’t detract from the singing and acting. Nontraditional, modern, experimental productions, de rigeur at the Salzburg Festival, often receive waves of disapproval and outright “boos.” The Met’s very traditional Carmen a few years ago with Elina Garanca was absolutely fabulous, everything you would want in a Carmen and a Carmen production. Madison’s Carmen was pretty close. As for what you’d want Maestro Demain to do to Bizets beloved score, I don’t get it. The orchestra was spot on. And I liked the faux Flamenco dancing. Lighten up a bit, sit back and enjoy. Wells made me think of the story of Rubenstein’s reply to a critic who asked him about a mistake he made during a recital. Removing his cigar and blowing out the smoke, he said, “Had I known you were interested in mistakes, I could have played a whole recital of them!”


    Comment by Dennis A Hill — November 8, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

  3. Wow. Talk about being ungrateful. Maestro DeMain fills a tremendously valuable niche in the opera world..namely finding and discovering new talent..Young artists that are grateful to work with him and that Madison Opera can AFFORD to pay. Sure, it would be great to see all kinds of innovative “new” works, but Madison simply does not, and never will have the resources to do that. Looking for new works? Madison Opera is putting on two this season. We are fortunate to have Mr DeMain.


    Comment by Bart Terrell — November 8, 2017 @ 11:43 am

  4. Having never seen a production of Carmen before, I was content with the tradtional staging. If I see it in the future I will look forward to a fresher, modern setting. I agree that the singers were all excellent! Jose’s character was an emotional powerhouse! I thought the orchestra was in top form, with some fine solos from the woodwind and brass sections. I did find myself wanting more volume from the orchestra at times but perhaps that is an unreasonable expectation. All in all I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and look forward to the next one.


    Comment by Carol J. Kramer — November 7, 2017 @ 5:31 pm

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this traditional Carmen. I’ve seen absolutely horrendous versions in the past: both traditional and updated. I’m so delighted that the shows were sold out and there were many young faces in the audience. I overheard many people saying this was their first opera and were interested in seeing what the rest of the season has in store.

    I agree with you that “Florencia en el Amazonas” will be exciting to see! But let’s not forget Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio”, his first hit at age 15 and has never been performed in Madison Opera’s 50+ year history! New costumes, sets, and a dynamic young cast! This also sounds like it would appease Mr. Wells, even if it’s a traditional setting…


    Comment by Paul Anthony — November 7, 2017 @ 5:00 pm

  6. I am a cast member, and freely admit that, as a musical theatre person, I am unfamiliar with the nuances of the work. A desire for a different interpretation is certainly valid, even if there is disagreement. However, I am curious. Mr. Stockinger thought it “hackneyed and hokey” that the Cigarette Girls were smoking cigarettes. That is pretty solidly written right into the libretto. In fact, it is called the Cigarette Girl chorus. What kind of new interpretative idea would have worked here instead? Should the women have had Kit Kat bars? Twizzlers? I am a musical theatre guy. Please fill me in.
    As for the “annoying children”, was that necessary? The children’s choruses are also written into the score and libretto. I hardly would think that the fact that Mr Stockinger hates kids is a reason to do a rewrite. Again…raising a discussion regarding new interpretations of classic works is a very valuable part of a critic’s job. Writing a snotty assessment of a work because one is in a shitty mood does not.


    Comment by Bart Terrell — November 7, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

    • Mr. Stockinger did not write the review. I did.
      I am well aware that the girls work in a cigarette factory. I just thought it looked absurd that every one of them had a cigarette dangling from her lips. It just wasn’t very subtle. I am also aware that there is a childrens’ chorus. However, I thought that the staging of the children was odd – they always seemed to be running and it was distracting. As for your conclusion that I hate children, you truly don’t know what you’re talking about.


      Comment by Larry Wells — November 7, 2017 @ 12:46 pm

      • As for the cigarettes not being “subtle”..that is a huge hall. Subtlety with a prop the size of a small pen does not play in the space. Also, the libretto clearly states that they are smoking. That is what the song is about. As for my assuming that you don’t like kids, I must apologize. Sorry that I missed out on the term “annoying” now being used as a term of endearment.


        Comment by Bart Terrell — November 7, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

  7. Sorry you have to be entertained with something new. The reason “Carmen” is so well loved over so long a time is because it is so right – it doesn’t have to be tweaked and altered and nuanced to make it better. I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the classic in the traditional form. Terry


    Comment by Terry L. Peterson — November 7, 2017 @ 11:16 am

  8. I’m curious to hear from others about why there was occasional chuckling during the opera, as though the actual story line was not going over well at all. She loves me, she loves me not. Mr. Wells writes, “When all is said and done, “Carmen” still beguiled me by drawing me into its characters’ complex psychologies and motivations.” Some people in the audience were not drawn in. Is it because “Carmen” is dated? Or that the production, despite the strong voices, did not carry through the power of obsessional love.


    Comment by Ronnie Hess — November 7, 2017 @ 9:25 am

    • Interesting. I guess I was drawn in by having to think again about why Carmen is so changeable and why José is so besotted. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a staging which successfully answers those questions, which may be why the opera still has its appeal. It’s mysterious.


      Comment by Larry Wells — November 7, 2017 @ 10:13 am

  9. You took the words right out of my mouth. The previous MO presentation though not groundbreaking had much more style. The singing of the Micaela role and the passion of Don Jose were the hIgh points


    Comment by Drew Fondrk — November 7, 2017 @ 7:17 am

    • You mean the one in 2009 with a rather unflattering Carmen who couldn’t move around the stage well (let alone be seductive) and Jose that couldn’t act? I had nearly forgotten about that show… thanks for the reminder… blah!


      Comment by Paul Anthony — November 7, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

  10. Good, bold review that makes a statement.

    I believe that Madison has a problem in some of its highest artistic groups like this one and the MSO, whose conductor led the musicians in this group: moribund leadership, unwilling to look at new music and at different ways of presenting the familiar.

    So this review comes as no surprise. It will not change until new blood enters the system. The only place in the city where one can find originality and creativity, in my opinion, is with the UW School of Music (and note that they recently brought in new people, including a new conductor to replace the excellent person who retired earlier this year).

    In a city noted for organizations that are creative, this element is unfortunately most often missing in our top, professional musical groups, especially at the MSO. It’s time for change and some new leadership.


    Comment by fflambeau — November 7, 2017 @ 3:52 am

    • Interesting that you feel Maestro John DeMain is lacking leadership and musicianship in his conducting choices and leadership of the Orchestra and Symphony. So you think that San Francisco, Glimmerglass, Washington National, Seattle, Barcelona all are making a terrible decision in asking him to lead their pieces?

      For any faults Mo. DeMain has he is still an excellent and highly desired conductor and our city is incredibly lucky to have him.


      Comment by Paul Anthony — November 7, 2017 @ 4:53 pm

      • I think the Maestro’s time, at something like 75 years of age, has come and gone.

        I also think it is a real mistake in essence, to give a conductor a life-time position without considering other possibilities. Better to give someone a shorter term (say a 6-8 year contract–with a one year trial/termination clause–with possibility of renewal for say another 4-8 years;but a lifetime sinecure? Nope. It doesn’t work.

        I’m not dumping on him: he has done some good things but any competent musician could have done as well or better: it was Madison’s growth as a city and Overture Center that made the MSO, not its current maestro. Any competent musician would have ended up with as good as or better results.

        Madison needs new blood and he’s never, in my opinion, been very original. He is “noted” for his interpretations of Porgy and Bess. But how many times do you recall him doing anything with that in Madison? And with all of his innovations, did Houston want him to stay? It appears not. His selection of music is pedestrian at best and full of war horses. There are far better (and much younger) musicians/conductors out there. Mr. Wells mentions one in his review; Kenneth Woods, who was born in Madison and has ties to UW, is another. There are a lot of young, talented people out there who would be an excellent fit in Madison.

        Our maestro has been conductor in Madison for 25 years and is in hid mid-70’s. It is true that he has done some very small guest stints elsewhere but if you think that he is doing big things in San Francisco, Seattle, Barcelona etc. you are wrong. He is no Edo De Waart (not an innovator, not someone who has championed new music or even American music, he has not led the MSO in commissioning works etc.). And unlike De Waart, I don’t believe he has ever gotten a call to conduct in Chicago EVER, or on a long-time basis in San Francisco or Seattle.

        It’s time for a change. Give him a gold watch, a pat on the back, a nice dinner, and let him retire in peace somewhere. It happens to everyone, even far better conductors.


        Comment by fflambeau — November 7, 2017 @ 10:04 pm

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