Each season, the Brevard Music Center opens the dress rehearsals of its opera productions to patrons. Tickets are a little cheaper, and the cast and crew get a real-world run-through with the pit orchestra. On August 3, the audience was near capacity, and they stayed for a three-hour-and-fifteen-minute production of the genre-defining Carmen that will surely get trimmed down by opening night, August 5. Conductor Steven Smith gave it a good pace and everyone hit the marks, but they’ll likely pick up some time by slightly shortening the two longish intermissions. Oh, there were a few other little glitches like audio drop out/in and a few awkward stage timings, but all stuff that’s easy to fix. This was a first-rate production with great voices everywhere.

Michael Ehrman directed a cast of twelve, supported by 47 others making up the mixed chorus and assorted soldiers. Set designer Robin Vest and lighting designer Andrea Boccanfuso combined to generate that sun-washed, faded Spanish stucco that feels so warm and looks familiar. Though I was a little puzzled by the red Western-style steel-string guitar with deep pick guard in the second act that didn’t quite mesh with 19th-century Spain, it would fit right in with Hank Williams in El Paso, Texas, during the 1940s.

Georges Bizet completed Carmen in late 1873. The first performance was in March of 1875, three months before the composer’s death. The work is widely regarded as the supreme example of “opéra comique,” which it redefined rather instantly, much to the abrupt shock of the premiere audience. After the first few acts, the audience rewarded the production with “glacial silence.” Critics called the story “far too obscene” for the stage and the characters “repulsive and uninteresting, erudite, obscure, devoid of color, unoriginal and undistinguished in melody, and altogether un-dramatic.” So there!

Yeah, well! Carmen had a run of 48 performances in the first year with a modest spike after the composer’s death, and then triumphant acceptance after a Vienna production in October of 1875. Just shows you what the critics know, huh?

At the time, the most contentious issue was Henri Meilhac’s libretto dragging all those reality subjects out into the open. Stuff like love, lust, jealousy, betrayal, lying, cheating, stealing, and murder. Ah, right! You say opera is full of that! True, but it had not been the staple of “opéra comique” where families gathered for light entertainment, socializing and/or matchmaking. I know, it makes no sense. Also not making much sense is a toreador character but no bull. I mean, you’d think we could work the bull in there somewhere.

Oh, and one more thing from the history department — it’s not really an opéra comique any more, since it picked up sung recitatives (set by another composer) along the way. These replaced the spoken dialogue Bizet intended….

Anyway, keep in mind all the work at Brevard Music Center is by students — from scenery to set building, painting, wardrobe, lighting, costume, props, sound, and of course the cast of voices and actors, et al. They are directed and coached by professionals, and that’s why they are at BMC for seven weeks of the summer. The operas produced during the season will make you turn pro or hit the tiles pretty quickly. This current cast is pulling a heavy load and doing an admirable job.

The role of Carmen was split. Audrey Gámez sang the part in Act I, and Sophie Roland performed for the remaining three acts. Both are mezzo-sopranos, with Gámez delivering a rich, dark, sultry timbre. I’ll tell you about Roland in a minute. The supporting characters were played/sung by Allen Pinkney as Don José, Dorian Hall as Escamillo, the Toreador, and Clara Rottsolk as Micaëla, with Jennifer Rossetti, Jessica Best, Carmund White, Robert Nauman, Brian McQueen, and Rasdia Wilmot filling out the cast.

Two things: in the days preceding this production, Sophie Roland suffered an allergic reaction and as a result was unable to sing. Her understudy, mezzo-soprano Michelle Rice, flew in from Washington, DC, to sing the role from the pit while Roland mimed the part for three acts. Rice, a native of California, has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Maryland and was a finalist in the Liederkranz Vocal Competition. This was her BMC debut. That this all happened so smoothly reflects very smart heads-up preparation and great step-in-get-it-done by both. I saw this done last fall during City Opera’s production of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Mines of Sulphur in NY.*

Finally, the gem in this production is Clara Rottsolk as Micaëla.  Fair skinned and pale (she’s from Seattle, natch, where they have 65 days of sunshine a year!), she hardly fits the common image of a dark Spanish woman. No matter. She has a pure soprano voice, and she sang so clearly and on pitch, and with such beautiful phrasing, that it was breathtaking to hear. The specific opera almost didn’t matter. With hints of greatness since Act I, her Act III aria earned sustained applause and cheers while she remained in character during the scene segue. Note the name. The girl has chops.

Bugs and all, it was a wonderful production, and I’m confident the August 5 opening will enjoy a tremendous success.

Oh, there actually is no bull. No, really!

Note: Carmen will be repeated at the BMC on Saturday, August 5. See our Western calendar for details.

*Edited, corrected 8/25/06.