Georges Bizet’s Carmen continues to be popular because of its beautiful melodies, atmospheric mood-setting, and intense tale of obsessive love. Still, it can be a bit of a marathon when performed complete, with many productions lasting up to four hours. North Carolina Opera, however, brought its staging in under three hours through judicious, nearly unnoticeable cuts in the music and spoken dialog, aided by managing with a single intermission.

The result was a fleet, engaging production that gave all the big numbers their due while keeping the drama from becoming clichéd or outsized. Despite being staged in 2,300-seat Memorial Auditorium, the production had an intimate feel, harking back to the work’s origin at the Opéra-Comique in Paris at half that capacity.

Conductor Keitaro Harada, returning to the company after an eight-year hiatus, again proved his expert sense of rhythm and tempo, moving things along in a sprightly manner but allowing sensual and emotional moments to register fully, especially in the entr’actes to Acts II and III. The company’s 46-piece orchestra responded vibrantly, including many fine instrumental solos and several rousing climaxes. Sometimes the percussion and brass overpowered the other sections but the overall impression was one of delicacy and clarity.

The youthful leads made for believable expressions of love, jealousy and rage. Aleks Romano didn’t rely on exaggerated sexuality or stereotypical “gypsy” tropes for her Carmen, exhibiting instead a carefree nature and an easy sensuality. She handled her dance sequences confidently and threw herself into such physical requirements as singing while tied up on the floor and being dragged and attacked by her murderous lover, Don José. Romano used her mezzo-soprano in a very French way, never pushing for weighty effect but supplying an insouciant overlay to everything, particularly the famous “Habanera.” Sometimes her fast vibrato produced an unfocused flutter that compromised the purity of the vocal line and even the pitch, but her interpretation worked well within this particular staging.

Sean Panikkar‘s freely-produced, clarion tenor allowed his Don José to make a striking effect, whether in his Act I romantic duet with village sweetheart Micaëla or his Act II moving declaration of love in “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée.” His well-honed technique held him in good stead throughout the character’s intense outbursts, which were never harsh or strained. Panikkar played the character as an innocent caught up it in an uncontrollable passion and made the fatal finale seem inevitable.

As the strutting bullfighter, Escamillo, Richard Ollarsaba cut a fine figure, his baritone ringing out in the familiar “Toreador Song” (“Votre toast”). The aria is always a difficult to pull off, but he did so with panache. Ollarsaba’s later scenes with Carmen and Don José were equally well-handled, including a believable knife fight with the latter, thanks to fight director Jeff A. R. Jones. Micaëla has just two main scenes, the aforementioned duet and her Act III aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante,” but the right performer can practically steal the show with them. Raquel González is one of those singers, her soaring soprano and good-natured characterization making her an audience favorite.

The rest of the cast proved equally adept, from Carmen’s cronies Frasquita (a perky Sara Womble) and Mercédès (a wry Stephanie Foley Davis) to the bandits El Remendado (a humorous Timothy W. Sparks) and El Dancaïro (the commanding Takaoki Onishi, who also took on the Act I officer, Moralès). Donald Hartmann‘s gruff Lieutenant Zuniga and three Flamenco dancers (Alicia Vilá-Geis, Maitri Acharya, and Yuko Cato) all made good impressions. Scott MacLeod‘s opera chorus continues to impress with its precision, blend, and power, while the Kidznotes Children’s Chorus charmed with the Act I imitation of marching soldiers.

Stage director Fenlon Lamb had some intriguing ideas for sequences such as Carmen being tied to a table in her Act I “Seguidilla” and defiantly offering the murderous Don José her own knife in the opera’s finale. The Act I street scene and Act II tavern scene needed more bustle and energy, and the final battle between Carmen and Don José lacked a sense of urgency and dread. There also were several instances of performers crowding around or in front of the leads, obscuring key moments. But, overall, the acting had a pleasing, down-to-earth quality, especially in the spoken dialog, which can often sound hammy in the opera house. Particular praise must also be given for the cast’s clear, natural-sounding French pronunciation, both sung and spoken.

The scenery, originally designed by Franco Colavecchia for Chautauqua Opera, lent appropriate mood to each act, the third being especially atmospheric in its depiction of the mountain hideaway. Nate Wheatley‘s lighting added sunshine or shadows as needed and Glenn Avery Breed‘s costume designs (provided by Wardrobe Witchery and coordinated by Denise Schumaker) were appropriate and eye-catching.

Carmen is one of the most complicated and difficult operas to stage among the “top ten.” North Carolina Opera’s production impressed with its consistency and confidence, a fine introduction to the piece for newcomers. Some aficionados might have missed more heightened drama or more attention-grabbing vocal characterizations, but the performance provided multiple pleasures, not the least of which was never needing to check one’s watch.

This opera repeats on Sunday, January 27. See our sidebar for details.