July signifies the final performances of the Israel Opera in Tel Aviv, and the schedulers figured they could not go wrong with the crowd-pleasing classic opera Carmen, by Georges Bizet.
They also chose to reprise a production that had been a success when it was first staged here in 2009—and it is easy to see why: it is a lavish, vibrant show, with a huge cast, and choruses of both adults and children. Not to mention that it owes its provenance to renowned theatrical and film director Franco Zeffirelli, whose production of Carmen premiered in New York in 1996.
In contrast to the previous production, however, this year’s Carmen marked the Israeli debut of several of the key figures, most notably in the leading role of Carmen, and as the guest conductor of the Israel Opera Orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra of Rishon Lezion. The role of Carmen on opening night was sung by Russian mezzo soprano Elena Maximova, while American conductor Karen Kamensek wielded the baton—the first and only woman conductor the Israel Opera has seen in recent years.
This production of Carmen also saw the return to the Israel stage of Uzbeki tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov, in the lead role of Carmen’s lover, Don José. Mavlyanov previously sang the role of Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which closed the Israel Opera season of 2016-17.
The tenor with whom Mavlyanov is alternating in this role during this run, Argentinian Gustavo Porta, is even more familiar to Tel Aviv audiences, from his numerous appearances with the Israel Opera.
The other major male role, that of the toreador Escamillo, was sung by Uraguayan baritone Dario Solari, who was reprising the same role he sang in the Israel Opera’s 2012 production of Carmen at Masada. The second major female role, that of Micaela, was sung by a very familiar voice to local opera audiences, that of Israel’s own soprano Hila Baggio, a graduate of the Israel Opera’s Meitar Opera Studio; Baggio alternates in this role with her Russian-born Israeli colleague, soprano Alla Vasilevitsky.
While all of the soloists acquitted themselves well, the performance of Maximova as Carmen is, naturally, worthy of special scrutiny. The sultry Maximova plays the role of the seductress Carmen to the hilt, with a convincingly sexy voice, and languid body movement to match.
On the other hand, on the occasions when the role calls for more energetic singing—such as when Carmen sings with her fellow gypsy maidens Frasquita and Mercedes—Maximova’s voice seems to fall short, especially in comparison to the powerful projections of sopranos Shiri Hershkovitz and Shay Bloch in the roles of Frasquita and Mercedes, respectively.
Maximova alternates in the role of Carmen with Israeli mezzo soprano Na’ama Goldman, who sang this same lead in the production of the Masada Opera Festival of 2012. Goldman will also sing the role of Carmen in the final performance of this run—and, indeed, of the entire season—on July 28, 2018.
The current production—punctuated with lusty choral singing and exciting rhythmic dancing—is quite long: close to four hours for the four acts, including two intermissions. Given the very short duration of the final act—less than 20 minutes—there is room to ask whether the second intermission, between Acts 3 and 4, is really necessary.
While Carmen marks the closure of the 2017-18 season at the Israel Opera House in Tel Aviv, it does not signal the end of operatic performances. The annual Opera Festival in Acre, held each summer in the atmospheric Hall of the Knights in the Old City, will take place this year from August 1-4. The program includes two performances of Christoph Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice, a program for children suitable for the whole family, and auxiliary concerts. The program for the entire weekend may be found online.
Finally, the Israel Opera will present a free opera in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park: Nabucco, by Giuseppe Verdi, on August 9, 2018.