ST. PETERSBURG — Carmen needs a fine Carmen, of course, and St. Petersburg Opera has one in Cherry Duke. This mezzo-soprano from Texas is far from a conventional choice to portray the tragic heroine of Bizet's classic. Her voice is not huge, for one thing, but in the company's intimate staging at the Palladium Theater, Duke brings an exciting combination of sexiness and intelligence to French opera's greatest femme fatale. In a way, Duke's performance on Friday felt not only fully lived but also like an astute commentary on her iconic character.
Carmen's seduction of Don Jose, the hapless corporal who falls under her spell, was sensationally rendered by Duke in the gypsy temptress' famous Habanera ("If I love you, watch out!") and then with slinky provocation in the seguidilla in which she did suggestive things with a rope. With her sharp-featured profile, Duke looked the part of the sultry spitfire, and her French had a throaty expressiveness in the card scene that foretells Carmen's death.
Tenor Mark Nicolson was a worthy partner as Jose, from the hand-on-heart lyricism of scenes with the soldier's hometown girlfriend, Micaela (Susan Hellman), to the unhinged outcast consumed by jealousy who delivers the fatal coup de grace to Carmen.
Hellman brought down the house with her outbreak of coloratura in Micaela's dramatic aria in Act 3. David Lara was a blustery Escamillo, but he had plenty of punch for his showstopper, the rousing Toreador Song. Allison Hull, playing Mercedes, is a Wagnerian soprano in the making, and her numbers with the lighter Frasquita of Sara Peeples were a charming blend. The seasoned bass Diego Baner was luxury casting as Zuniga. Wade Thomas and Bryce Westervelt sang with bouncy comic flair as the smugglers. A weak link was the Morales of Colin Levin.
Artistic director Mark Sforzini conducted the 34-piece orchestra, which once again, as in the company's production of Cosi Fan Tutte in January, was positioned at the center of the stage. The orchestra was surrounded by Allen Lloyd's irregular set of ramps, platform and staircases. It's a resourceful solution to the Palladium's lack of an orchestra pit. Carmen is traditionally a grand production, but by necessity Sforzini and director Dean Anthony have created a kind of concert version of the opera that is really appealing in that it puts the emphasis where it belongs, on the music and the tightness of the ensemble.
Much of Carmen is choral, and the children's chorus of urchins kept up with Sforzini's peppy tempo for its entrance to be greeted by a roar from the audience. The production has sung recitatives rather than the spoken dialogue that is often used.
The only chink in Duke's inspired performance Friday was the occasional shortage of power in the mezzo's lower register, as heard from my seat in the balcony. I wondered how her voice would hold up over three performances in three days this weekend. After all, Nicolson had Saturday night off, with tenor John Tsotsoros slated to sing Jose. Surely Carmen is an equally taxing role and might also have been double cast to prevent vocal wear and tear. Next season's St. Petersburg Opera schedule indicates that Rigoletto and Madama Butterfly have breaks between performances, and that should allow the company to continue to attract vocal talent of the high caliber of the principals in Carmen.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.