A full Stevens Center cheered the opening night of the Piedmont Opera’s superb performance of Carmen, surely one of the best-known operas ever written. Yet the composer, Georges Bizet, never lived to see the success of the opera, dying of a heart attack three months after the premiere, at the age of 37.

Singing the title role, Mabel Ledo was a seductive and provocative gypsy, opportunistic and deceitful. And she can sing! She has a lovely voice, rich, smooth and velvety in all ranges and her French was a pleasure to hear. This production also gives her ample opportunity to demonstrate her prowess as a dancer.

Her seduction of the pious Corporal Don José proves to be her nemesis. She lures him away from his past, including his mother and his betrothed, Micaëla, and causes him to desert the army, before casting him off in favor of the hugely popular bull-fighter, Escamillo.

The demanding role of Don José was sung by tenor Jason Wickson whose lovely big voice covered all the demands of the part, being easily heard at all times. One might have wished for a bit more expressiveness in the lyrical passages, but this can probably be chalked up to opening-night jitters and youth.

An emissary from Don José’s mother, Jodi Burns as Micaëla, the deceived fiancée, gave us some of the best singing of the evening, a lovely soprano voice and superb diction. Her third act soliloquy, “ Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante…” (“I say that nothing frightens me…”) was so well received that the applause threatened to stop the opera.

The other show-stopper was baritone Michael Redding as the swaggering toreador, Escamillo. Bursting on stage with his famous Toréador Song, Redding has a big burnished voice and a lithe supple build which allowed him to leap onto the tavern table like a cat. Pity his diction forced me to glance up at the supertitles!

Act II was a whirlwind of dancing and tight ensemble singing. Frasquita (Catherine Park) and Mercedes (Kate Farrar) as gypsy friends of Carmen were both excellent with lovely voices matched by admirable dancing. Lieutenant Zuniga (Jason McKinney) had both an imposing stature and an impressive bass voice.

The soft sculpture sets from the North Carolina Opera provided a suitable yet minimalist backdrop for the lurid drama to unfold, and the lighting of Norman Coates enhanced the mood of the moment, especially in the second act Tavern Lillas Pastia. Steven LaCosse staged the production and deserves kudos for the second act as well.  (But who mixed up the bandarillas and the picadores?)

The Piedmont Opera Chorus was full-voiced and animated and the large children’s chorus from the Winston-Salem Youth Chorus (Barbara Beatty, director) was well disciplined and on pitch. The orchestra sounded thin, but I attributed that to my seat on the main floor rather than my preferred seating in the balcony – then I realized that the Winston-Salem Symphony had been pared down for a reduced orchestration. It was most noticeable in some of the more dramatic or somber moments, as when Carmen reads “death” in the cards. Other moments were sparkling, as when we anticipate Carmen’s escape while the strings play an exquisite fugato (both fugitive and fugato have their origins in the Latin fugare, to chase). Maestro James Allbritten was the super-competent conductor, keeping the vast array in tight control.

A stellar cast, a great chorus, a pitful of excellent musicians, a lively children’s chorus and great direction make this a “Don’t Miss” performance.

**Note: For a letter to the editor concerning this review, see https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5807