TAMPA — It feels kind of wrong to describe an opera as tragic and stabby as Carmen as "fun." Georges Bizet's 1875 masterpiece is a triumph of orchestral sound, an important deconstruction of the social mores that govern our personal choices. But ...
Carmen is also really, really fun.
The audience at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Friday laughed, not just chuckled, but full-on laughed at all the right moments in Opera Tampa's production of Carmen, directed by Daniel Lipton and Frank McClain. It speaks as much to the performers' approach as to the story, packed with wry nuances about the complicated goings on between woman and man.
Carmen opens in Seville, Spain, in the middle of the 19th century. Soldiers are mingling — wink, wink — with eager gypsy ladies who work in a cigarette factory. But really, the men only have eyes for one.
She is played by Italian mezzo-soprano Alessandra Volpe, a classic olive-skinned beauty with a lilting, crystalline tone she can temper into flirtation, seduction, boredom and ultimately defiance in the face of a boyfriend gone batty.
Naturally, the free-wheeling gypsy sets her sights on the only guy who isn't into her — Don Jose, Corporal of Dragoons. She is able to seduce him so heartily that he conspires to free her after she gets in trouble with the law. It plays out in a charming scene involving Carmen, Don Jose and a length of rope. If he frees her, she says, they can blow this joint and go drinking together. What would you do?
Loving Carmen ruins Don Jose's whole life, a life he still chooses to chuck to run off with the gypsies. Carmen taunts Don Jose throughout the course of their relationship, insisting if he really loved her, he'd stop worrying about snoozy things like deserting the military and disappointing his mom.
Carmen would drive any man up the wall, yet it's hard to get enough of watching her do it. Volpe plays her character with a shruggy indifference, like when you're fighting with someone and the person says, "Just do what you think is right." She has no patience for anything other than total commitment to her freedom and satisfaction. And yet, you can tell she really does love him in her way.
We witness the dedication and confusion play out in the voice and face of Texas tenor John Pickle, who handles Don Jose's descent into madness with a skill that makes you say, "There, there." His powerful instrument is a stable complement to the commitment phobia reflected in Carmen's voice.
He finds some hometown comfort in Micaela, a village maiden sent by Don Jose's ailing mother to fetch him from this hot mess. Canadian soprano Nathalie Paulin gives a tingling performance of the aria Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante. Close your eyes and enjoy.
A real bright spot is the toreador Escamillo, played by Welsh baritone Jason Howard, who steals Carmen from Don Jose. He is the classic dumb jock everyone worships. If his cheekbones were any more defined, his hair any blacker, he'd be a statue. Howard is magnetic in his role, especially while leading the famous Toreador Song.
The audience connected with the familiar music, drumming their knees and humming along, to the credit of the excellent Opera Tampa Orchestra under the leadership of conductor and opera artistic director Lipton. The musicians played Bizet's legendary work with precision and urgency, and when the impressive Opera Tampa chorus joined to sing in concert with the leads and full pit, it created goose-bumpy moments that filled every cranny of Carol Morsani Hall.
As with most opera, this is a long production. Expect to spend just over three hours at the theater, but don't dare leave before the end. If you've ever felt like the conclusion of Carmen is a little, well, unfair, Opera Tampa has a surprise for you.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. Follow her on Twitter at @stephhayes.