The sudden cancelation of scheduled star mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, because of health issues, cast a shadow over anticipation of Opera Carolina‘s new production of Carmen by Georges Bizet (1838-75). As a critic, I too often have been disappointed by “cutting edge” or radical restaging of standard operas. I do not take kindly to bass singers entering on a Harley Davidson in a Handel opera nor do I want my Cio-Cio-San vaporized in the Hiroshima atomic blast! News of Opera Carolina’s Carmen being staged entirely within a unit set, the bullring, and extensive use of dancers put this critic’s sensors on full alert.

Cancelation of a major artist such as Graves opens up the stage for a lesser known but rising talent to shine and that was certainly the case on this occasion in spades. Graves substitute, on very short notice for New Jersey Opera as well as Opera Carolina, was mezzo-soprano Kristin Chávez. She has performed widely including the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, the Sydney Opera House, and the Staatsopera in Hannover, Germany. Carmen is one of her specialties and it was easy to see why. Her powerful, evenly supported voice never showed a trace of strain and it had a dusky, warm tone. Her intonation was flawless and her ability to color and to subtly adjust dynamics to heighten the meaning of the text was extraordinary. She held her own against skilled dancers in this unorthodox staging and easily dominated the stage, fully embodying the fatalistic gypsy.

Tenor Carl Tanner was simply superb as the rapidly disintegrating Don José. His voice’s top had a beautiful ring to it and it was gleaming across its range. Tanner’s biography is unusual. He came to opera after having been a semi-truck driver, a bounty hunter, and a singing waiter. He has performed widely with such opera houses as the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera Covent Garden, and the Staatsoper in Hamburg, Germany. His sturdy build and dynamic acting added to his character’s growing threat as he quickly evolved from misfit and momma’s boy to growing possessive jealousy to delusional and violent abuser.

The Figaro from the Mozart opera in Opera Carolina’s last season, baritone Kristopher Irmiter, made a superb Escamillo, the preening and self-obsessed bull-fighter. His “Toreador’s Song” was the showpiece it should be.

This staging made the most effective use of the character Micaëla, Don José’s mother-approved girl friend from home. Too often a bland character lost among so many over-the-top types, soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird brought out a wider range of emotions than is usual and sang with a beautiful and even voice which possessed a warm tone and fine intonation.

Davidson physics professor and bass-baritone Dan Boye constantly proves there are no small roles. His solid vocalism and vital characterization has brought secondary roles vividly to life in more than twenty roles for Opera Carolina. Such talent richly deserved one of two “liberties” conductor Meena said was taken in this Carmen. At the end of Act II, instead of tying up Lieutenant Zuniga, Don José’s commander, the smugglers held an impromptu firing squad. This allowed Boye to pull out the stops for a death scene a lead tenor could envy! He was defiant and macho to the end.

University of North Carolina School of the Arts graduate baritone Jason McKinney made an imposing and welcome appearance in the dual roles of Lieutenant Moralès and of the smuggler Dancaïre. The role of his fellow smuggler, Remendado, was well taken by tenor Brian Arreola, University of North Carolina Charlotte Professor of voice. Soprano Diane McEwen-Martin and mezzo-soprano Carla Dirlikov made a lively pair as Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès.

Opera Carolina owns this new production and sets devised and directed by Bernard Uzan. Instead of the conventional four sets for four acts, Uzan staged the entire opera within a bullring with the entire chorus, wearing black, seated as both an audience and functioning as a chorus as in a Classical Greek play. The large Belk Theater audience made up the “other” half of the bullring patrons. The singers onstage were joined throughout all four acts by ten dancers, stunningly choreographed by Peggy Hickey, who became in turn Carmen’s fellow impudent, lithesome cigarette factory girls or the soldiers in Act I and the very vivid gypsy dancers in Act II. During the overture, some of them mimed dragging off a body double of Carmen from the bullring like the carcass of a bull. During Carmen’s fatalistic soliloquy, dancers mimed her murder by Don José. The second “liberty” this production took, dramatically valid based on the original fatalism of the Prosper Mérimée play, was to have Carmen run herself onto Don José’s knife at the end of Act IV.

Despite my initial misgivings, I found the use of the unit set with seated chorus and imaginative use of dancers helped to focus the drama more vividly. All of the cast’s French diction was excellent. Michael Baumgarten’s lighting design was especially creative and imaginative. Memorable was a “ballet of small lights” through the darkened bullring suggesting the wandering course of the smugglers across the mountains as the orchestra played the interlude leading into Act III. The costumes, designed by Patricia A. Hibbert, were superb whether those of the sensually draped cigarette girls or Carmen’s plush, rich dress in Act IV.

Opera Carolina General Director James Meena conducted a taut and vital performance with close coordination between the fine–sounding Charlotte Symphony in the pit and the soloists, dancers, and choral forces on stage. Rhythms were well sprung. The strings’ sound was warm and subtly articulated and the brass, especially the horn section, was aptly brilliant. The choral forces were made up of both the Opera Carolina Chorus and the Charlotte Children’s Choir.

Instead of rushing to the parking deck and sitting in long, slow lines of cars exiting them, opera lovers ought to attend Meena’s informal Postludes. The conductor encourages an easy give-and-take with attendees and usually has one or more of the opera’s stars. The nuts and bolts of opera production and singing are discussed. Meena said this Carmen had been haunted by illness. Not just Graves initially having to pull out but every member of the cast had been ill over the course of rehearsals. Chávez joined him after changing out of her costume. She said one reason she was popular for the role of Carmen was her having extensive hair of her own! Meena said it saved the company about $500, the amount a theatrical wig would have cost. About this unusual staging, she said it was actually easier since only the singers and dancers were on stage. The chorus was seated in the bullring bleachers and there were few objects on stage to dodge or be blocked.