Abrahamyan's Carmen "smooth, sexy, and enticing."Review
The curtain rises on a behemoth of a set for The Atlanta Opera’s current production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. The set, costumes, and lighting are effective in translating a perfect Sevillian setting for a traditional version of the opera masterpiece under the direction of Second Year Atlanta Opera Studio Artist Brenna Corner who has taken the reigns to bring the Spanish flair of Carmen to the Atlanta Opera stage.
Carmen, definitively Georges Bizet’s most famous work, filled with highly memorable music that has transcended the classical music realm and forced its way into pop culture by way of The Muppets, Sesame Street, pasta commercials, Looney Tunes, Doctor Who, and even the infamous opera-themed episode of Nickelodeon’s 1998 episode of Hey Arnold! While the now-celebrated French composer’s works are a part of the mainstream classical world now, this wasn’t always the case, even with Carmen, which premiered late in his life, was not the immediate success that draws the constant crowd that opera-goers see today.
Carmen is the story of a woman of the same name who works in a tobacco factory. The story follows her, her friends, and her lovers over time as she escapes arrest for starting a fight in the factory and completes a drug smuggling ring while also balancing seducing an engaged corporal into loving him. Unfortunately, things don’t go very well for the heroine in the end.
Atlanta Opera’s production features a gargantuan set (designed by Allen Charles Klein) which makes the most of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center’s stage and sight-lines, perfectly crafting act one’s town square, act two’s tavern, and transforming perfectly into the third act’s hideaway and the final act’s bullring. The costumes, coordinated by Joanna Schmink, and wigs, designed by James McGough, blend perfectly with the set to capture 1800s Seville, opening on a busy town and expansive chorus of children and Atlanta Opera Chorus members.
There was a lot about this production that I enjoyed - Corner’s staging keeps the energy and feel of Bizet’s original piece while also allowing for Atlanta Opera’s chorus to provide some of their trademark cheekiness within the larger chorus numbers. Her use of the stage is especially effective, as she fills the set with the right number of crosses and entrances to keep the audience entertained without allowing them to miss a beat. Where the production lacked, however, was in some of the more specific character choices that manifested throughout the piece.
Making her US debut, mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan stepped into the titular role of Carmen with a silky, warm contralto-esque sound that rang beautifully throughout the hall. Her highlight arias, including the famous Habanera (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”/“Love is a rebellious bird”) and the Seguidilla (“Près des ramparts de Séville”/“Near the ramparts of Seville”) were smooth, sexy, and enticing. Abrahamyan’s Carmen is everything a post-patriarchal woman should be: confident, unashamed of her sexuality, and free to express herself - just as Bizet had intended, however, Abrahamyan and Corner’s interpretation of the role allows the character to invoke a more empathic and humorous side to a character who is typically depicted as sharp and sexual. Adding the element of empathy and humor helped round out the character and make Carmen’s ultimate sacrifice at the end of the third act even more impactful.
Returning from his recent engagement as Calaf in The Atlanta Opera’s 2017 production of Turandot is tenor Gianluca Terranova who sings the role of Carmen’s lover, Don José, a corporal who sends himself to prison after helping Carmen escape from arrest when she starts a fist-fight in the tobacco factory. José is engaged previously to Micaëla, a country girl who is friendly with his sick mother. José abandons her upon hearing Carmen’s Seguidilla and deserts the army to join Carmen in a smuggling endeavor. Terranova’s voice was a magnificent, bright, Italianate tenor with a strong body and top and the technical intelligence to be able to navigate through the lighter musical passages with easy. His aria, “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”/“The flower that you tossed to me”, was delicate and beautiful, setting the audience on edge as they listened to José express his love to Carmen after throwing her to the ground in anger. My issue with Terranova comes from the almost slapstick way that he portrayed José who is, in most senses of the word, a whiny manchild.
Terranova’s José was almost comedic, attempting to bring a levity and stupidity to the character that would have better fit Rodolfo while here instilling a feeling of unease as José turned from an abusive soldier in love to a caricature of himself, drooling at Carmen’s chest like a hungry dog staring down a steak. This broke the illusion for me and, in the final act, when his character finally snaps and wrestles with Abrahamyan’s Carmen, I felt that the two would have done better to have built up more honesty in their on stage relationship as it seemed to break the character of the piece when José attempted to block Carmen from entering the bullfighters ring.
Internationally renowned soprano Nicole Cabell returns to The Atlanta Opera after a successful run as Juliette in their Roméo et Juliette in 2016 to sing the role of Micaëla, Don José’s soon-to-be-wife. Cabell since with a silvery lyric soprano and a mastery of character that brings the warmth of Micaëla and her struggles to help José about through an honest voice and beautiful singing. The famed toreador, Escamillo, is sung by baritone Edward Parks, who enters the stage with a commanding presence at the top of act two that is only enhanced by his height. His bright, striking baritone and excellent high notes.
The cast of soldiers was rounded out by Moralès, sung by Calvin Griffin, the bass-baritone who I previously reviewed in TAO’s Seven Deadly Sins, who continues to provide a stable and beautiful light lyricism to this role, and bass-baritone David Crawford who sings the cunning Zuniga, giving a full cynicism and haughtiness that enticed the audience.
Carmen is joined by fellow smugglers in act two. Kaitlyn Johnson, soprano, and Sofia Selowsky, mezzo-soprano, debut with the company as Frasquita and Mercédès respectively. Johnson’s voice is a clear and beautiful, complimenting Selowsky’s mellow tones as they comfort and coax Carmen throughout the remainder of the opera. Tenor Justin Stolz and baritone Joseph Lattanzi round out the cast as Le Remendado and Le Dancaïre. Stolz, a First Year Atlanta Opera Studio Artist, sang with the full voice and unmistakable warmth that I recognized from his previous Atlanta Opera performances in Seven Deadly Sins and as the steersman in The Flying Dutchman as well as his recent Alfredo in La traviata with Atlanta’s Capitol City Opera Company. Lattanzi was dramatically intriguing with a silvery voice that made me excited to see where he goes next. As a group of bandits, Johnson, Selowsky, Stolz, and Lattanzi provided an apt cast of comedic characters for Carmen and Don José to play off of.
The chorus of children and Atlanta Opera choristers was well prepared by chorus master Lisa Hasson and children’s chorus master Rolando Salazar, though a few members of the male chorus seemed to vie for the spotlight, overacting during some scenes so much that it pulled attention from some of the action from the principles. The choruses sang beautifully, filling the front of the stage between acts three and four to provide a scene that covered the scene change from the hideaway to the bull fighters arena. Two soloists came from the chorus, Amanda Perera, whose rich mezzo-soprano fit right in and baritone Michael Lindsay, who sang with a necessary stability for the crowded apron of the stage.
Though some kinks were made due to poor acting choices and unnecessary comedy, the show is truthful, engaging, and full of the amazing singing and scenery that I have come to expect from The Atlanta Opera.
This production runs through May 6th. For details and tickets, click here.