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Voices Blaze 'Carmen'

March 15, 2010

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    March 15, 2010
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    Opera Carolina News

Voices Blaze 'Carmen'

Shutting everyone into a theater that was blacked-out – stage and all – wouldn’t really be an option. But Opera Carolina’s “Carmen,” which opened Saturday night, could nearly get by on the voices and orchestra alone.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. But Georges Bizet’s score is a feast of melody. The sparkling, passionate music crystallizes the entire story of the fatally free-spirited Carmen and the soldier who falls too hard for her. By the time the climax arrives, Opera Carolina makes it as cataclysmic as I’ve ever heard.

That happens gradually, though. When Carmen appears, Kirstin Chavez sings with a breeziness that lets the audience meet her playful side first. Before Don Jose falls for Carmen, Carl Tanner’s poise and sunny tone enable him to seem downright gallant in his scene with his hometown sweetheart.

Then Carmen and Jose connect. As the drama takes hold, Chavez’s and Tanner’s voices surge. Hers grows fuller and gutsier, letting Carmen’s rebelliousness and stark fatalism catch fire. Tanner’s power and gleam make Jose’s outbursts dominate even the orchestra – though the Charlotte Symphony, led by James Meena, adds its own flashes of power as punctuation.

The rest of the cast complements Chavez and Tanner without equaling their power – that that anyone necessarily should.

Jose’s hometown girl, Micaela, represents goodness and devotion, and Anne-Carolyn Bird captures that in her singing’s warmth. As the bullfighter Escamillo, who wins Carmen away from Jose, Kristopher Irmiter delivers the famous “Toreador Song” jauntily. Carmen’s smuggler buddies let fly exuberantly in their high-speed quintet. The orchestra, outside of the occasional smudge, amplifies all of that.

Stage director Bernard Uzan, who directed “Faust” for Opera Carolina last season, amplifies it another way: by making the singers literally the center of attention. Uzan does away with the usual locales of “Carmen” and has the action play out entirely in a bull ring. The chorus watches from the stands.

With little to lean on, literally or figuratively, by way of sets or furniture, everything depends on the principals’ ability to hold the attention. Between their own naturalness and Uzan’s guidance, they generally can, especially in the last two acts.

But in the first two acts, when Carmen is having fun being herself, her portrayal rings false. Uzan and Chavez have created a Carmen who works overtime to get men’s attention. She wraps her skirt around them, wraps her limbs around them, rubs against them, pulls her skirt up to bare a leg, you name it. For someone as magnetic as Carmen is supposed to be, should attracting men take that much effort?

With the chorus tucked away in the grandstand, Uzan and choreographer Peggy Hickey have added 10 dancers who weave through the entire opera. The represent people the chorus usually would – such as soldiers or the denizens of Carmen’s tavern hangout – and they also contribute lusty dancing when the music invites it. They’re a lively addition, for the most part.

Occasionally Uzan or Hickey goes wrong, though. An example: the woman who play-acts a bull during the “Toreador Song.” When she raises her hands above her head, that’s probably supposed to suggest the bull and its horns. But I’m still seeing Richard Nixon flashing his last goodbye as he boarded the helicopter to leave the White House.

By Steven Brown
The Charlotte Observer

To read the original article, visit the Charlotte Observer.