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That George Bizet should have died at age 37 is most ironic and a tragedy in itself. His death came three months after the premiere of Carmen but before any hint of the success which has made the opera one of the most performed in the world. The original performance in 1875 had been delayed by the producers of the opera who worried that the audience would be offended by the lurid story of stolen affection, betrayed promises, seduction, desertion, and murder. Jaded by today's sensationalism, last night's audience tittered and giggled when Carmen defied her jilted lover's pleas to remain loyal to him. Perhaps in the age of hacking and "false news," melodrama has become the new comedy.
The Greensboro Opera's Carmen for this production was Sandra Piques Eddy, slender and sexy with a rich and colorful voice, especially in the dark lower register. We first see her as a feisty disruptive worker in a cigarette factory in Seville. She eventually joins a band of smugglers on the open road, living from day to day and moving from place to place, her dusky beauty always her calling card. She becomes stubborn and passionate at the end of the opera as she approaches the death predicted by the cards in the smoldering third act trio.
Her lover, the handsome but stubborn Corporal Don José, was sung by tenor Dinyar Vania, whose large voice soared over the part with ease, albeit somewhat rigid and sharp in the higher register. His seduction from obedient son to gypsy lover is accomplished almost in spite of himself, as well as his fated desertion from military life.
The Corporal's childhood sweetheart, Micaëla was sung by Melinda Whittington. Her rich, warm soprano stole the show in the gorgeous third-act aria, "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante." Micaëla is everything Carmen is not – simple, pious, chaste… and blonde. As with the other heroic character in the opera, Escamillo, the celebrated toréador, her part is written in cameo appearances – enter, sing and exit! But the part is among the most melodious written by Bizet!
David Pershall was the acclaimed bull-fighter, Escamillo – handsome, suave, and as popular with the on-stage crowds as with the audience. The "Toréador" song is one of the most famous and familiar in the opera repertory, and a crowd-pleaser in the UNCG Auditorium as well.
Donald Hartmann sang the comic role of the lieutenant Zuniga, a blustering ineffectual leader with a great booming voice, hopelessly infatuated by Carmen.
Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Mercedes and coloratura soprano Joann Martinson as Frasquita were the companions of Carmen and joined her in the third act card song as well as the brilliant second act quintet, to which smugglers Scott MacLeod and Jacob Ryan Wright added bass and tenor respectively.
The scenery (borrowed from the Chautauqua Opera) was evocative of Spain, and the third act mountain hideout of the smugglers set was impressive, even if we had to wait extra-long in the chilly second intermission for the curtain to open. From the balcony, green and red tape markers were a constant distraction to an otherwise clean stage floor.
The staging, directed by David Holley, Artistic Director of the Greensboro Opera, was animated and appropriate to the moment, whether terse and tragic, heroic or melodramatic. I do wish, however, that Carmen had tried to escape her fate rather than seeming to stumble into it.
The Greensboro Opera Chorus was excellent, if at odds with the conductor's sprightlier tempos. The large barefoot Children's Chorus added color and animation to the opening and closing act crowd scenes. The girls of the cigarette factory sang beautifully if unintelligibly, whereas the "regular" chorus and children sang their French lyrics impeccably – as did Whittington, Pershall, and Hartman. For the rest, there were supertitles in English!
Ted Taylor was the guest conductor who led the entire ensemble with brisk tempos and dramatic pauses. The orchestra was excellent. In keeping with the quirky acoustics of UNCG Auditorium (formerly Aycock Auditorium), I was privileged to hear the harp, second trombone, and piccolo as though they were beside me.
There is a repeat performance on Sunday afternoon, January 15. See the sidebar for details.