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Opera review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts 'Carmen' at the Hollywood Bowl

August 2, 2010 |  1:53 pm
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Five years ago an unknown 24-year-old Venezuelan conductor made his U.S. debut at the Hollywood Bowl. You probably don't need to be reminded that 10 months ago the now famous Gustavo Dudamel made history a second time at the Bowl with "¡Bienvenido Gustavo!" -- the free celebratory concert that began his Los Angeles Philharmonic music directorship.

Sunday night was Dudamel's third Bowl appearance, and once more an unwieldy amphitheater served as a site for a rite of passage. This time it was Dudamel's American opera debut. He conducted a dazzling concert performance of "Carmen" to begin a week of Bowl appearances with the orchestra that will include a Bernstein/Gershwin program on Tuesday and a Latin-themed one on Thursday.

EntBlog_Photo330 Thus far, Dudamel's operatic activity has been limited. But he reportedly brought enough electricity to Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Puccini's "La Bohème" at La Scala in Milan that he is now rumored to be a leading candidate to take over the famed Italian company at some point in the next few years. He's done "Bohème" in Berlin as well as Donizetti's "L'Elsir d'Amore" at the Staatsoper. Last summer, he conducted his first "Carmen" in Caracas, Venezuela's capital.

From the evidence of Bizet's opera at the Bowl, I wouldn't discount the La Scala rumor, despite his lack of repertory. "Carmen" is a conductor's opera. And if Dudamel is, in Esa-Pekka Salonen's words, a conducting animal, he has now proved himself an opera animal as well, an utter natural for the lyric stage.

Yes, there was an attractive Carmen -- Natascha Petrinsky -- with a figure, amber mezzo-soprano, and red dress all well suited for a femme-fatale fête. She was bolstered by a generally engaging international cast. The Los Angeles Master Chorale was the life of the party, and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus a delight. But Dudamel remained the center of attention, and he was clearly the draw for an audience of nearly 13,000.

There happens to be a context to "Carmen" at the Bowl. A supposedly sensational staging in 1922 with a fledgling L.A. Philharmonic and cast of 500 attracted an audience more than a third larger than Sunday's. In more recent years, Jennifer Larmore sang her first Carmen as part of John Mauceri's annual concert operas with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony, and two summers ago Bramwell Tovey oversaw an L.A. Philharmonic "Carmen" camp fest, starring Denyce Graves.

Dudamel's "Carmen" was different in every way. For one thing, he did not, in the manner of Mauceri or Tovey, offer a charming précis of the plot. Instead, Dudamel jogged on stage, conducted an expansive national anthem and then barely allowed the audience time to sit down before he dramatically launched into the orchestral Prelude. Launched is maybe too stodgy a verb. Rockets take off majestically. Dudamel's reflexes are those of a sprinter hearing the pistol shot.

This was a streamlined "Carmen" heavy on momentum. In large symphonies, Dudamel can get distracted by detail and lose the shape. But here his conception was entirely theatrical. He was captivated by every dramatic nuance and did a brilliant job of creating colorful atmosphere, which is a huge highlight of Bizet's score.

Of course, the video cameras can't get enough of this conductor. He dances when the music dances. He can entice an exquisitely shaped flute solo or the sleekest of violin accompaniment not only with irresistible facial expression but with every bit of his body.

Carmen seduces: Dudamel seduces. Carmen is doomed, Dudamel appears devastated. Don José lapses into passion: Dudamel shows him where to go. Micaëla gets maudlin, so does her conductor. Escamillo prances; Dudamel prances right along with him. 

Petrinsky, a mezzo from Vienna who trained in Tel Aviv, was not an especially dangerous Carmen. She smiled an entertainer's smile rather than an ensnaring one. But what she lacked in flair she made up for in confident singing. Rather than display a magnetic sense of doom, she stood up to her fate heroically.

Lee Yonghoon Lee, a young Korean tenor, was at first so cool a Don José that he could have been  a mobster in a '60s art film. But he lost that cool quickly, soon enough pouring out extravagant emotion. Alexia Voulgaridou was an overwrought Macaëla. Kyle Ketelsen captured Escamillo, the domineering bullfighter, excitingly.

At the opera's end, Don José argues with and then stabs Carmen. The tenor didn't have a knife in this concert performance. But Dudamel wielded his baton like one. The amplification was cranked up, orchestral detail came through loud and clear. The L.A. Philharmonic, as it had all night, sizzled. Carmen's wasn't the only breath taken away.

-- Mark Swed

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl. 8 p.m. Tuesday (Gerswhin and Bernstein) and 8 p.m. Thursday (“Bolero” and other Latin music).  $8-$99. (323) 850-2000 or www.hollywoodbowl.com

Photos: Top, Gustavo Dudamel conducts "Carmen" at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night; middle, soprano Natascha Petrinsky; bottom, Yonghoon Lee. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.

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