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at Back Bay Theatre last weekend

By Stephen Kaplan

I WISH everybody could sing like Marilyn Horne. It isn't fair that only one human being in the world should have a voice like that. But as long as there's only one, it's folly to waste her on such enterprises as the Opera Company of Boston's Carmen, through which she glided like a swan in a cesspool.

Some of the blame for the production rests on Miss Horne herself, for she brought along as conductor her husband, Henry Lewis, whose contribution to the musical world may be generously dismissed as pathetic. Maestro Lewis knows a few tricks of the trade: he understands how to keep the beat, he can make the orchestra start and stop together, and he never lets the baton fall out of his hand.

Despite these gifts, he failed to invest his orchestra with enough expressiveness or subtlety to rival Doc Severinson's band. Carmen's rousing prelude came out as a consistent, if uninspiring, series of oompah-oompahs, and in the orchestral finale to the Gypsy Song the melody somehow got lost beneath the percussive power of the tambourine.

Not that there's much any conductor can do with Carmen, Bizet. for some perverse reason presumably connected with his nationality, insisted on writing French opera at a time when Wagner and Verdi had conclusively proved that the promise of great opera lay elsewhere. Blind to their examples, Bizet wrote six or seven good numbers which have since become standards and filled out the rest of Carmen with tedium and theft. The Second Act quintet is bad imitation Mozart, the Third Act trio bad imitation Rossini, and Micaela's Air good imitation Meverbeer, which is just as bad. Carmen proves Bizet to be the Milton Berle of music.

Nearly overcome by the combined talents of Messrs, Lewis and Bizet, the production staggered punch-drunk through Oliver Smith's scenery, obviously stolen from the backgrounds of one or two Walter Lantz cartoons, and Peter Hunt's lighting, so determinedly atmospheric that is declined to illuminate such non-visual set components as actors. Bruce Yarnell, of Annie Get Your Gun fame, sang Escamillo with an ample baritone, but sounded ready to launch into "The Girl That I Marry" at the smallest provocation. Carole Bogard's Micaela had lots of potential but her lively soprano couldn't compensate for the inherent dullness of the role. Glade Peterson's powerful and expressive tenor seemed perfect for Don Jose, but he muffed the Flower Song and never fully recovered.

AMIDST the general bungling, Ciro's choreography gave the Gypsy Song tremendous vitality, and his flamenco solo at the beginning of Act Four stopped the show. The staging, by Sarah Caldwell, was always competent and occasionally inventive, as when Carmen threw her Tarot deck into the air at the end of Act Three. And Marilyn Horne played Carmen.

Miss Horne's greatest triumph lay in overcoming her own substantial bulk. In the first act, largely because of Maestro Lewis' absurdly fast tempi in the Habanera and Seguidilla, her Carmen seemed only a winsome, fat slut, but the virtuosity of her singing and acting for the rest of the opera made it easy to believe every man in sight found her irresistible. Her sensuous voice moved with perfect flexibility from the dark richness of a Leontyne Price to the brilliance of a Birgit Nilsson. The weight of her low register in the Tarot Scene was miraculous, and the delicacy of her flirtation dance before Jose no less so. Her characterization omitted no details, from the Third Act baiting of Jose to the seductively hoarse suggestion of "L'amour" at the end of the Toreador Song.

Decked out in a red wig capable of infinite improvement, laced up so tightly that she seemed potentially explosive, Miss Horne defied the audience to disbelieve her Carmen, but no one did. Her instincts of when to talk instead of sing were uncannily correct, and her phrasing both musically and dramatically faultless. She is undoubtedly the greatest mezzo in the world, and with luck and judgement her next vehicle will be more worthy of her.

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