Although the abrupt resignation of Atlanta Opera’s general director Dennis Hanthorn this past July created both uncertainty and speculation among local opera patrons, the company opened its 2012–13 season at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre as planned on November 10, with a satisfying rendition of Carmen. As the board of directors conducts a search for a new company leader, AO is seemingly in good hands: the company’s music director and conductor Arthur Fagen united an eclectic ensemble of soloists for this well-loved opera hit.
Jeffrey Marc Buchman, who directed the production, framed the story as a flashback. Don José looked on from a prison cell at the start of each act during the orchestral interludes, remembering the events that led to his downfall. Buchman cleverly partnered with his wife, dancer and choreographer Rosa Mercedes, to integrate Spanish dance throughout the show. The work was presented in grand-opera fashion — sans the ballet — with recitatives, rather than dialogue. Due to time restrictions Fagen and Buchman cut the recap of the Act I duet between Micaëla (American soprano Melissa Shippen) and José in Act I, as well as the opening chorus, “Ecoute, écoute compagnons,” in Act III.
The set, designed by Allen Charles Klein, consisted of grand arches with the name “Escamillo” stamped all over them that flanked both sides of the proscenium stage. The bulky fixture remained in place for all four acts, with transitional pieces such as campfires, tables and tents installed according to scene. Buchman skillfully staged his players — including a very large opera chorus — in such a way that the unit set did not grow tiresome. In addition, Buchman and costume designer Joanna Schmink sustained visual interest by carefully delineating social class in the clothes worn by the cast. Peasants and townspeople wore short bolero jackets, while the merchant class donned European coats, hats and parasols. The gypsies wore petticoats in vibrant jewel-tones with mismatched patterns. In the final act, flamenco dancers wore true matador outfits, stiff and rigid, but rebuilt for the dancers.
Spanish mezzo-soprano María José Montiel gave a larger-than-life performance as Carmen: every gesture was exaggerated for the sake of drama. Montiel’s entrance aria, the habanera, was rich with dynamic contrast and rubato. Her upper register isn’t thrilling, but the contralto-esque timbre of her instrument in the middle and low voice is simply stunning. Montiel’s singing in the last act was earthy and muscular — unforgettable.
Mexican tenor Fernando de la Mora returned to Atlanta to sing the role of the ill-fated Don José. Last heard in AO’s 2007 production of Roméo et Juliette, de la Mora paced himself vocally, maintaining vibrancy in every scene. The Act II aria, “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” concluded with an achingly beautiful pianissimo as José lay down next to Carmen, alone in Lillas Pastia’s tavern.
Russian–American baritone Aleksey Bogdanov rounded out the international cast with a confident portrayal of Escamillo, the bullfighter and José’s rival. Bogdanov’s substantial voice rumbles rivetingly from top to bottom.
The AO production boasted an adept crew of supporting singers. Amanda Opuszynski shone as Frasquita. Most of Frasquita’s singing is within ensemble numbers, but Opuszynki’s burnished soprano voice could be heard clearly, exciting and fresh. Similarly, Kaitlyn Costello, a former dancer turned opera singer, drew our attention with her clear, lyric mezzo as Mercédès.
Walter Huff’s chorus performed exceptionally well, as always, and was joined by an adorable and dynamic children’s chorus prepared by Will Breytspraak.