One of the pleasures of attending operas is catching great talents as their careers begin to take off. That was true of last fall's Virginia Opera production of Verdi’s La Traviata and it was even truer of the company’s searing production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen heard in the Landmark Theater. Both operas have been done often in North Carolina, and have received a good standard or better of singing and staging by several companies. Both Virginia productions starred one of the finest singing actresses I have had the privilege to hear. In an age in which audiences and directors seem to value onstage appearance over vocal heft, soprano Cristina Nassif has gorgeous looks and stage presence in spades. More importantly she has full control of a large voice that has a pleasing timbre. Her palette of vocal color and fine expressive graduations of dynamics are amazing. Her diction is superb.
Nassif’s Carmen was surrounded by colleagues whose vocalism was excellent and who were completely inside their parts too. The Richmond matinee was the last of nine performances that had begun with five in Norfolk before touring to Fairfax and the state’s capitol. Any “bugs” in the production had been ironed out and everyone settled convincingly into character. Stage director Dorothy Danner, who had directed the 2005 Verdi, marshaled her cast masterfully, effectively blocking crowd scenes and smaller ensembles to fully convey Bizet’s intentions.
Nassif’s seductive and sultry Carmen was ruthless as she exploited the weaknesses of her male targets. While most singers who take up this role are mezzo-sopranos, Nassif’s solidly supported lower soprano range was wholly convincing. Aggressively straddling every chair and bale in sight or vamping against a wall, she was an unusually athletic gypsy. She extracted the maximum of dramatic and musical value from all of the character’s hit arias.
Unlike several superstars who have essayed the role of Don José, tenor Bryan Register’s portrayal was the most dramatically convincing depiction of the corporal’s degeneration into a brutal murderer I have seen in the theater. His “outsider” status in his unit and his hot temper were revealed in stage business well before Carmen’s arrival. His timbre was pleasing and his high notes soared up evenly and precisely with a nice ring. His integration of acting and singing was excellent.
Baritone Eric Greene’s solid stage presence was well known to us from his superb interpretation of Robert, husband of the title character in Opera Carolina’s production of Danielpour’s Margaret Garner. He did about all that could be done with the cardboard character, Escamillo, the self-obsessed star of the bullring.
In almost all productions, the role of Don José’s girlfriend from home, Micaëla, is thankless. Not so in this staging. Catherine Cangiano has a beautiful, large soprano voice that could hold its own against Nassif’s and cut through in ensembles. Director Danner made much more of her role than the usual shrinking violet.
I could easily imagine either mezzo-soprano Jan Cornelius, who sang Frasquitq, or mezzo-soprano Sarah Austin, who sang Mercédès, undertaking Carmen. Both had beautiful, ideally focused voices. Much more imaginative use was made of the children's chorus than is usual, including extra stage business, not just singing and marching.
A large and solid looking unit set was readily tweaked to change from a Seville street to Lillas Pastia’s tavern, to a bleak cave, and with more extensive changes, to the street outside the bullring. Part of the set’s upper structure doubled as a sort of “orchestra shell” and helped project onstage music. The scenery was designed by Eduardo Sicangco. Most of the lighting, designed by Donald Thomas, was effective although spotlighting Carmen’s card reading seemed old-fashioned. The costumes, designed by Gay Howard and Eduardo Sicangco, were very attractive and eye-catching.
Artistic Director Peter Mark kept tight control between the fine members of the Virginia Symphony in the pit and his singers. Everything was exactly timed, even the girls' puffing on cigarettes was on the beat! Nothing was allowed to drag; the forward dramatic impetus was unrelenting.