Review: Passionate, lively ‘Carmen’ opens New Orleans opera season _lowres

Photo provided by Tom Grosscup -- Bryan Hymel is Don Jose and Geraldine Chauvet is the Gypsy of the title in 'Carmen.'

Any staging of a frequently performed opera is going to invite comparisons with past productions of the same work. This is inevitable, but if the latest production is performed well, it will stand up to those comparisons.

Such is the case with Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” which opened the New Orleans Opera Association’s 2014-15 season on Friday evening and reprises with a matinee Sunday afternoon. Rolled out in spectacular fashion over four acts, this was the best of the company’s recent stagings of the familiar work.

Thanks to the impassioned singing of the principals, plus a seasoned chorus, colorful costumes, excellent sets and stellar work by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, this production of “Carmen” more than fulfilled expectations in nearly every department.

Making her New Orleans debut in the title role, French mezzo-soprano Geraldine Chauvet was a hit with the audience, singing her part effortlessly and convincingly. In one of the few operas in the standard repertoire with a mezzo lead, Chauvet portrayed the free-spirited Gypsy with a delivery that was alternately lush and sensuous, serious and foreboding.

From start to finish, Chauvet embodied the treacherous temptress the composer intended Carmen to be. Her lilting “Habanera” was, as expected, one of the evening’s highlights, showcasing both her vocal talents and a hint of the personality that would steer the action to its tragic conclusion.

Opposite her was a hometown favorite, tenor Bryan Hymel, who, judging from the applause he received after each solo and during curtain calls, had a good many fans in the house. He didn’t disappoint, offering a Don José that can go toe-to-toe with the best of them.

As the loved-then-rejected innocent who is hopelessly seduced by Carmen’s charms, Hymel convincingly spiraled downward from a proud soldier to an insanely jealous and deranged murderer. And with each backward step, Hymel’s plaintive singing mirrored his plight with power and intensity.

As Micaela, the gentle village girl who hopes in vain that Don José will marry her, Hymel’s real-life Greek-born wife, soprano Irini Kyriakidou, was seen infrequently, but each appearance of Micaela is a memorable one.

Knowing that she is no match for Carmen in contending for Don José’s affections, Micaela tries appealing to his common sense — which, unfortunately, his obsessive infatuation with Carmen has blotted out. But, in so doing, Kyriakidou got to deliver some of the best arias in the opera, especially her Act 3 “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” (I say that nothing frightens me).

As Escamillo, the dashing bullfighter who ultimately wins Carmen’s wayward heart, bass Oren Gradus strutted and primped his role convincingly, relishing his place as the center of attention in his Act 2 entrance. However, his rendition of the famous “Toreador Song” was a bit difficult to hear over the orchestra. Fortunately, the chorus came in to embellish the piece with its requisite liveliness.

As Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes, soprano Amy Pfrimmer and mezzo Claire Shackleton delivered their lines with ringing clarity. Ivan Griffin (Zuniga), David Castillo (Morales), Jacob Penick (Dancairo) and Tyrone Chambers II (Remendado) also excelled in their respective roles.

Additional plaudits are in order for Robert Lyall, for his spirited conducting of this alternately lively and dark score, and for the orchestra for rising to the occasion for three hours. Director Brad Dalton and stage manager Kathleen Stakenas deserve praise for coordinating the complex details of moving such a large cast around the stage.

Kudos also to scenic designer Ryan McGettigan for some of the most realistic-looking sets seen in recent opera productions in this city. The opening act, especially, created a genuine feeling of the streets of Seville, and the set for Lillas Pastia’s tavern in Act 2 was equally atmospheric.

The lighting by Don Darnutzer and choreography by Gregory Schramel and Marjorie Hardwick, co-directors of New Orleans Ballet Theatre, also deserve praise, as did the perfectly blended singing of the New Orleans Opera Chorus, directed by Carol Rausch. And last but not least, the Children’s Chorus, made up of talented singers from Metairie Academy and Crescent City Lights Youth Theater, charmed its way into the audience’s hearts.