When I first heard that Opera Omaha was debuting its new season with Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. “Carmen” is so well-known, so popular, so frequently performed, that’s it’s become a bit of trope.
Last night presented the titular anti-heroine in a different light from the typical femme fatale, free-spirited gypsy. This was Carmen unvarnished — unglamorous, unsympathetic and, for the most part, pointedly barefooted.
This was due to Lillian Groag’s directing. She strove to present the opera with a grittier side, one more reflective of life among the lower classes in 19th-century Sevilla. The women in the cigarette factory are covered with soot, slovenly and by all appearances in possession of few morals. The children are begrimed, and one pretends to be injured while begging money from passers-by. The tavern in which the smugglers gather is seedy and ramshackle.
The devil is in the details, and Groag provides lots of great little details. But she also mixes it up with wonderful bits of humor, from the same children imitating and taunting the soldiers to the gypsy women foretelling their fortunes of dearly wished-for wealthy widowhood.
Tenor Jonathan Burton gave a finely nuanced performance as Don José, Carmen’s ill-fated lover.
This was his second time in the role for Opera Omaha, which he first performed in 2008.
In many ways, “Carmen” is more his story than that of the women he eventually murders. It’s about his struggle to be a son his aging mother can be proud of, despite his violent tendencies and obsessive inner demons.
Burton commands the role with his fluid voice, seamlessly demonstrating Don José’s devolution from smitten swain to bitter obsessed stalker.
His “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” in which he pleads his love to a dismissive Carmen, had a heart-rending quality, evocative of his emotional descent into madness.
Burton also showcased both his voice and emotional versatility during his tender duet with soprano Leah Partridge in the role of Micaela, Don José’s would-be wife. It was a touching, beautiful and almost bittersweet scene, and Burton and Partridge had terrific chemistry.
For her part, Partridge brought a nuanced layer of versatile dimensionality to a character that often comes off as overly naive.
She portrayed Micaela as spirited and strong-willed, and her voice had a spectacularly clear quality to it, utterly gorgeous with its expressiveness and sheer power.
Of particular note, too, was bass Bradley Smoak. His characterization of Zuniga had an easy charismatic charm to it, and his booming voice was magnificent.
Mezzo soprano Leann Sandel-Pantaleo made her Opera Omaha debut as Carmen, and her portrayal was at times a bit hit and miss.
During the first act, she played the gypsy with a tawdry kind of flippancy that made her seem almost falling down drunk as opposed to headstrong and free-spirited. The directing involved too much head turning and swaggering, movement that didn’t allow her voice to project as fully as it should have.
For example, the famous “Habenera” didn’t have quite the hypnotic quality for which it’s known.
In the second half, though, her movements were toned down, and Carmen emerged as more willful and calculatingly manipulative. As “Carmen” the opera progressed, Carmen the character did, too.
When Sandel-Pantaleo hit her upper ranges, she demonstrated just how powerful her voice could be. This was evident in “Je vais danser en votre honneur ... La la la,” her exotic dance for Don José, during which it was becoming evident why he was becoming increasingly under her spell.
Taken altogether, Opera Omaha has opened 2013-2014 with a thoroughly entertaining, at times enthralling, version of “Carmen.”
The season will present more headstrong women in the form of Agrippina and Cinderella. We’ll have to wait until 2014 to see how they follow in Carmen’s bare footsteps.