For its final production of the season, Nashville Opera calls on the power of one of music’s most-loved and oft-performed operas, Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director John Hoomes presents a compelling, well-acted, and beautifully sung treatment of this operatic staple, filled to the brim with all the passion, fire, and lust present in this work.
TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall was absolutely packed for Thursday’s opening night performance. A classic like Carmen tends to bring out the masses. From casual theatergoer to die-hard operaphile, there was present an encouraging diversity of attendees. Things got off to a great start with the overture, with excellent balance from the orchestra straight from the top, as booming brass and flourishing winds sat atop a robust percussive backbone. With only a whiff of intonation trouble, it was a powerful start that provided just enough “oomph” to build anticipation for the drama to come.
At the start of Act I, a gorgeous set emerged from behind the curtain. Towering stone walls and columns with a staircase placed just behind created an illusion of depth and provided a rigid visual outline that brought focus in on the action without being distracting. The emergence of the cigarette girls was well executed with great staging and blocking by the director, but the entrance was truly brought to life by the ladies themselves. The scene was sensual, and through excellent costuming and acting they conveyed a quality of unwashed beauty, not seedy, but with a sort of pedestrian allure.
Ginger Costa-Jackson’s Carmen entered the fray with total presence, and her interactions during the famous “Habenera” were playful and tastefully nasty. Gifted with an elastic, flexible, and incredibly expressive voice, her Carmen was not larger-than-life but rather commanding and controlled, cutting through with razor precision. Her acting was also superb, and her devilish cackle sent chills throughout the hall.
Micaëla, played by Laura Wilde, provided an excellent contrast to Carmen’s fire. Her innocence was convincing, though at times it came across as too vanilla. Nevertheless, her vocal quality was powerful and resonant. Her duet with Don Jose was incredibly well executed and brilliantly sung, and the balance between singers and orchestra was just right.
Noah Stewart played Don Jose and was a huge presence onstage Thursday night. A naturally gifted actor, he sang with a rich tenor voice that was both sweet and powerful when it needed to be. His character development at the end of the first act was memorable, as we see him slowly slipping into Carmen’s grasp through excellent staging and pitch-perfect acting. He slowly bent to her charms and with the flick of a switch was completely at her mercy. The devious look on Carmen’s face when she realizes she’s succeeded in her seduction is one of pure mischief and delight.
The start of Act II revealed a familiar set with a few subtle twists. The overall framework of the stage never changed, as the general stone facade was incorporated into each new location with subtle enhancements and some clever-yet-tasteful lighting. While initially this seemed an unfortunate choice, given the grandness of the structure, it was a practical decision that ultimately paid off. Transforming a grand edifice into dimly lit tavern, after all, was no small accomplishment.
The entrance of Escamillo was a highlight in the second act. Edward Parks was a natural for the role, embodying the rugged, confident bullfighter with unabashed charm. I found myself wanting more in the low range from his powerful baritone, which in the bottom of his register was unfortunately thin. But his brazen bravado and suave masculinity more than made up for any deficits.
Other standouts included the smugglers, whose performance was appropriately comedic. Zachary Devin and Makoto Winkler’s interactions were natural and light. One feels these two men had been friends since boyhood – and never quite grew up. Their number with the gypsy girls was also incredibly tight and well sung, one of the best ensemble performances of the night.
Costa-Jackson was impressive enough in the first act. In Act 2, she came into her own. Charismatic and independent, she depicted a sure-of-herself woman who knew her power and delighted in it. She gave a real sense of freedom to the role and was expressive with just enough melodrama to not seem too serious.
Stewart displayed his acting chops with great effect in Act III. Don Jose’s reaction to Escamillo’s declaration of love for Carmen was visceral, dramatic, and vocally evocative. He deftly conveyed rage boiling under the surface, and we could clearly see this man’s inner turmoil. On the flipside, Carmen’s reaction to Don Jose’s own infidelity with Micaëla was fuming and perfect, devoid of jealousy but certainly exasperated. A convincing foil to Don Jose’s unbridled fury, Costa-Jackson’s restrained seething was palpable and her icy stare could freeze time itself.
Act IV was a bit of a letdown when compared to the spectacular performances of the drama that preceded it. Beginning with such promise, the flashy and dazzlingly flamboyant outfits of the toreadors made for some of the best costuming of the production, and the tender concern displayed for Carmen by Frasquita (Courtney Ruckman) and Mercédès (Melisa Bonetti) during their warning was sincere and heartfelt. All the while, Don Jose is struggling to contain his crazed emotions, and you could feel his lack of sincerity and sinister intent behind his voice. Even his costume was disheveled, a nice directorial touch. With so much going well, it is a shame that a true climax is never quite felt. More passion is needed from Carmen at the bitter end, and while her acting is a tour de force, the singing could have used more pain and power in the opera’s final moments.
Overall, the sound filled the space well from start to finish, but as a matter of taste, there were not enough fortissimo moments. One got the sense everyone was being slightly reserved. Balance between the voices and orchestra was adequate, but there were times we could have used more from both, although they rarely obscured one and other, which mattered most.
William Boggs did a fantastic job conducting throughout, although he did seem unable to solve the dilemma of keeping the chorus, positioned slightly behind large set piece on the staircase, together with the orchestra in the end of Act IV. That was a mild distraction, but it was not unforgivable, given the challenging nature of their location.
The stage fighting was kept to a bare minimum, which was a disappointment but not a night-ruiner by any stretch, and overall the physicality of action was the only unpolished acting element present. The translation was well done, free of obvious errors, and timed well. Positioned high above the stage on a slender projection screen, it was just out of the way enough to barely notice if you weren’t looking for it.
Ultimately, this performance was a huge achievement for the Nashville Opera, which delivered the goods and-then-some on one of opera’s great workhorses. They deserve every bit of praise for this production of Carmen. It was one to remember.
Nashville Opera will present Carmen at 8 Saturday, April 8 at TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall. Tickets are available here.