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Carmen: Bizet’s tour de force at Dallas Opera

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    Good things come to those who wait, the saying goes.

    So it was at Sunday’s performance of The Dallas Opera’s “Carmen,” one of the world’s most popular operas.
    It took a while for Georges Bizet’s story of a gypsy girl ruled by her fickle heart to get rolling, but once it did, sparks, music and voices flew through the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House.
    Dynamic French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine is making her American debut in a role she will surely sing for a long time to come, but her first-act aria, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,’ most commonly known as “Habanera,” lacked the lust normally associated with the overt seduction of hapless soldier Don José, sung beautifully by tenor Brandon Jovanovich. (Portuguese tenor Bruno Ribeiro will take over for the November performances.)
    While the vocals were spot on, the chemistry between the gypsy rebel and her latest conquest didn’t ignite until the end of Act II, when Don José’s jealousy begins to flare. Imprisoned for a month for letting Carmen escape, he finds her in a tavern with her friends, plotting a crime.
    He knows he shouldn’t desert the army, but he has no choice after attacking his lieutenant who makes the mistake of flirting with Carmen.
    Jovanovich, a tall, commanding figure on stage, shows incredible tenderness for his ailing mother and Micaela, the girl he left behind, but he cannot control the passion he feels for Carmen, and his angry reactions to her brash behavior foreshadow the coming danger.
    By Act III, the couple is in trouble. The flush of new love is waning in Carmen. She advises her soldier to return home to his mother. And, her pretty head has been turned by a dashing bullfighter, Escamillo (sung by Dwayne Croft), who makes a brief but impressive appearance in Act II to a rousing Toreador Song (“Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre”), one of the opera’s most popular arias.
    Micaela, a role sung beautifully by soprano Mary Dunleavy, searches for the pair in the mountains, vowing not to be cowed by the woman who stole her one true love.
    At the end of Sunday's aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante,” Dunleavy received a long, warm ovation from the appreciative crowd. She was the personification of innocence and purity – a sharp contrast to the fallen Carmen.
    Don José leaves with Micaela to visit his mother’s deathbed, but vows to return and deal with Carmen once and for all.
    Before Act III, an opera representative came out and said that baritone Croft had been under a doctor’s care for a week and a half, but was going to continue with his performance and begged the audience’s indulgence.
    No need.
    While Croft may have lacked the forcefullness usually heard from the dashing Escamillo, his voice showed little signs of distress. He also held his own with Jovanovich during the fight scenes. Bravo for upholding the tradition that the show must go on.
    Of course, Act IV comes to a dramatic, tragic conclusion. Carmen would rather die than be bound to someone she doesn’t love. The scene is played to perfection.
    Of special note is an Act II quintet by Gypies Remendado (tenor William Ferguson), Le Dancaire (baritone Steven Labrie), Mercedes (mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock), Frasquita (soprano Danielle Pastin) and Carmen. They handle the parts during “Nous avons en tete une affaire,” a blazingly fast piece that explains how women grease the grooves when it comes to crime, with surprising clarity.
    The Dallas Opera choruses – men’s, women’s and children’s – also performed beautifully, though limited in space by a surprisingly shallow set. When you have a space as large as the Winspear stage, why not use all of it?
    The last two times I’ve seen this opera, the cast has worn drab, dowdy colors. Athough Carmen is totally decked out in Act IV, I’m ready for her to wear bright, vivid colors again. She is opera’s bad girl – drab doesn’t suit her.
    Bizet’s score is demanding, but new musical director Emmanuel Villaume displayed complete command of his domain, directing singers and orchestra with equal energy and delicacy. The prelude to Act III has never been lovelier.

Additional performances of “Carmen” are Oct. 30, Nov. 2, Nov. 8 and Nov. 10, at the Winspear Opera House in the Arts District. Tickets are on sale now, starting at just $19, through the Dallas Opera Ticket Services Office at 214-443-1000 or online at www.dallasopera.org.




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