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Opera Wilmington has become a well-established and highly regarded presence on the Port City scene. It is a success to be celebrated by lovers of opera and those gratified by the growing depth of cultural life in Wilmington. One way Opera Wilmington's success can be measured was by a happy announcement made in the opening remarks: all four performances are sold out.
This year's production – the group's fourth – was the ever-popular and superb Carmen by Georges Bizet. The opening performance offered an upbeat experience and many strengths.
The spirited overture set the tone, with the orchestra playing crisply, even if the sound was somewhat muted due to the theatre's acoustics. Once the curtain goes up, and in good dramatic fashion, it takes a bit of time before the main characters enter the stage; the first scene introduces the action and lets anticipation develop. Once Carmen and Don José enter, passionate love, gentle attachment, rage, and death unfold through some of opera's most memorable characters.
Michael Rallis portrayed Don José, the soldier led into love and then abandoned by Carmen. He is a passionate singer, and this role let him shine. His voice rang over the entire range and his character, beginning as a confident if somewhat introverted soldier, unfolded in a cohesive dramatic arc. Soldier Don José moves to ardent love and then to frustrated rejection, obsessive jealousy, and finally murder, becoming in the process the anti-hero of the drama. It is worth mentioning that enacting a murder onstage was provocative in Bizet's time. In Rallis' performance, one could feel that directly ahead lay verismo opera, and one generation further, Berg's nihilist Wozzeck, also a soldier who, with a knife, kills the lover who abandoned him.
Chelsea Keane Holmes was the compelling figure of Carmen, a character who today can be seen as a powerful vision of female identity. With Berg's Lulu she shares the quality of being absolutely faithful to herself, no matter what may happen, and telling the world only what she sees as true. In this performance one could imagine a Carmen with more smoldering sexual energy, but Holmes worked up good passion in some of the duet scenes, especially when strong expression was called for in her middle and upper range. The card scene with her friends Frasquita (Maria Beery) and Mercédès (Isabella Stollenmaier) was well-characterized and blended. The moment when the mood shifted from merriment to Carmen's pronouncement of her imminent death was memorable.
Micaëla, Don José's fiancé (Elizabeth McKay Field), whom he abandons under the spell of Carmen, projected beautiful long lines. She fully portrayed the devoted, gentle beloved and her great third act aria carried much tender beauty. Another memorable moment was the shift at her entrance, from the sonorities of the smugglers to her delicate wind chords. One could feel the two worlds colliding. While at times she needed to project more, especially in the mid-range, at her best she shone forth with fine expression.
The smugglers Le Remendado and Le Dancaïre (Daniel Paparozzi and Ronald Holmes) entertainingly carried their duet. They were equally engaging in the quintet with the three women; these were smugglers you would actually want to meet. The military captain, Zuniga (Carl Samet), had a good air of authority – if not too gruff – and also carried the humor well when he stumbled on the smugglers in their den (this opera has a number of funny moments).
Of course one must give Escamillo, the dashing bullfighter, his due. It is he who provokes Carmen's abandonment of Don José and the eventual dénouement of the opera (of course that is presaged from the very start, with Carmen's great habañera, in which she describes exactly her view of love). John Callison sang this role with fine virile energy. In the splendid toreador song with which he introduces himself, his voice was packed with strength. Only at the very top and bottom of his range was he less in his vocal comfort zone. He also looked fabulous in his sleek blue outfit, the quintessence of the character.
Bizet's handling of the orchestra in this piece is consummate. Under Joe Hickman, the orchestra brought forth the line and color of Bizet's evocative score. There is inevitable compromise in using an ensemble of 23 instruments (dictated by the size of the pit in the theatre) in place of the full-sized Romantic orchestra called for by Bizet. At times this caused the sound to be thin. Yet at other times, one appreciated the clarity of the textures; Bizet is Gallic in his economy and the smaller orchestra could bring this out to good effect.
The entr'acte (preceding Act IV) had one of the most beautifully performed orchestral segments of the opera. Hannah Senft played the oboe solo with gorgeously shaped line and fabulously beguiling tone. Her phrases were answered with great beauty by Mary Jo White on flute and Mary Gheen playing piccolo. Paige Zalman, percussion, was an overall stand-out, always providing crisp and precise rhythm on the various instruments. The bassoon, played by Helena Spencer, contributed evocative darker timbres. The small string section at times carried lush long lines beautifully; at others there was wavering of intonation or rhythmic precision. One could imagine this settling down in the coming three performances.
The stage direction (Frank Trimble and Nancy King; King is also Opera Wilmington's artistic director) used the small stage to create a good deal of ensemble energy. The exception was in the first scene, where the repeated lines by the soldiers of how people were coming and going, were matched with little movement on the stage. On the other hand, the stage fairly exploded into life in the revelry of the Act II tavern scene, and the Act IV crowd scene had similar vitality.
A significant and welcome directorial choice was to use spoken dialogue, as envisioned by Bizet, rather than recitative. It did, however, take adjustment to hearing the dialogue in English, with everything otherwise being sung in French.
The sets (Max Lydy) also took good advantage of the small stage. Particularly effective was the set for Act III, which takes place in the smuggler's den. The stage, as well as the lighting (Tara Noland) vividly evoked the subterranean gloom of their hiding place. The Act IV set was also especially good for how it resembled the scene in Act I, lending a visual symmetry to the story.
The choreography (Nancy Podrasky Carson) created dynamic group scenes in the substantial choral segments. Dancers emerged on their own as well: one clad in red in the second half of the overture, lending additional evocation to the death motive in the orchestra; and a pair of dancers at two other points. It was an inspired touch to have dancers at the start of Act IV, where they appeared in the side balconies sporting colorful capes, and evoked the unseen bullfight to come.
The workaday costumes (Mark Sorensen) attractively portrayed the proletarian nature of the characters. The soldiers were set off against this, as were of course Carmen and Escamillo. There was an interesting touch in the last act, when Carmen emerged in a black dress, as opposed to the red one she had been wearing until then. Was that ceremonial, for her appearance with Escamillo? A suggestion that she might have really found love? Or maybe the premonition of her impending death?
Not only is the current run of Carmen performances sold out, but Opera Wilmington is now the resident opera company at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. This production began the relationship beautifully. The affiliation is sure to add luster to both organizations, and will hopefully grace Wilmington culture for many seasons to come.