ST. PETERSBURG — If only Georges Bizet had lived a little longer, he might have glimpsed the payoff from his risk.
The French composer behind Carmen, which premiered in 1875, would surely have been pleased to know that the gypsy factory worker he immortalized would become one of opera's most recognizable names.
The St. Petersburg Opera Company opened its season Friday with the classic, and it is a grand effort. The stirring tenor of Michael Morrow as Don José filled a nearly packed Palladium. With an inspired performance by Jennifer Feinstein as Carmen and strong support from several others in the cast, this production stays faithful to timeless romantic truisms that still seem daring, including the willingness to die for love.
Set in 19th century Seville, the story centers on Carmen's troubled romance with Don José, an army corporal. He follows her into the life of a smuggler and an outlaw, not exactly by choice or for the best reasons. By the end, there is plenty of magnificent suffering to go around, which brings out the power of these singers.
Bizet, a child prodigy who mastered the composition of operettas as a teenager, was commissioned to write a new work for the Paris Opéra-Comique. The result reflected his disillusionment with societal norms but did not meet the expectations of critics.
Heroines at the time were not lower class factory workers. Women did not smoke or engage in knife fights. Sexuality was a secret, not something to be flaunted, and moral transgression had to be followed by redemption.
Bizet rejected all of these conventions, voicing his rebellion through Carmen's libretto. Feinstein sets the sultry tone early with Habanera (Love is a rebellious bird/That nobody can tame). A mezzo-soprano who can belt out the money notes with ease, she is especially captivating in the lower register.
Feinstein's Carmen is by turns earthy and passionate, brooding and fearful, and can make even an innocuous scene shine. As the third act opens, for example, Carmen faces the gloomy predictions of tarot cards laid out by two girlfriends. Her reaction (If you are to die/If fate has spoken/You can deal out 20 times/And still the word will be: Death!) captures the range of the character, the opera and what makes this production worthy.
The girlfriends, Colette Boudreaux as Frasquita and Caroline Tye as Mercedes, both turn in richly expressive performances. Other standouts include Phillip Gay as Zuniga, a lieutenant of the Dragoons, who pairs a menacing swagger with a commanding bass-baritone delivery; and Amanda Opuszynski as Micaela, who is passed over by Don José in his infatuation with the title character.
Opuszynski's soprano is as sweet as her portrayal of Micaela is fragile and endearing. Other players, from the smuggler Remendado to the children's chorus, fill out a production that opened the season without a hitch Friday.
So, too, does Christopher Holloway as Escamillo, the bullfighter who is also drawn to Carmen. Holloway delivers the legendary Toreador song with pomp and grandeur, carrying the role with all of the finesse it demands.
From the racing opening overture through the fourth act, conductor Mark Sforzini and stage director Karl Hesser have put the opera's innumerable pieces together in a production true to the spirit of its creator.
Though Bizet did not live to see it (he died three months after Carmen premiered), Pyotr Tchaikovsky's prediction would come true that 10 years or so from then, "Carmen will be the most popular opera in the world."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.