The Atlanta Opera offers a colorful and compelling production of Georges Bizet's classic "Carmen," running at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through May 6.
For regular operagoers, there aren’t many big surprises left in “Carmen,” one of the most frequently produced operas of all time. The solid and serviceable sets by Allen Charles Klein will even be familiar to audiences from when they were used in the 2012 production. Two large series of arches line both sides of the stage, giving the action a fitting sense of grandeur, but also allowing for an occasional enclosed feeling of intimacy for quieter scenes. (Structural elements between the arches change, though the enormous set pieces themselves never move, making a square in Seville look too much like the inside of the tavern, which looks like the mountain, which also looks like the outside of the bull ring.)
Atlanta Opera Studio Artist Brenna Corner directs, and on opening night, famous songs and familiar arias seemed remarkable more for the way they wove into an overarching dramatic narrative, rather than for the way they popped out of it, which is one of the production's many strengths; oftentimes "Carmen" can have a "greatest hits" sort of feel, but that's far from the case here, where the emphasis remains squarely on telling a strong story. For the final act entrance of the bullfighters, Corner innovatively has the characters parade through the aisles of the theater, a moment I dreaded when I realized it was happening, but which turned out to be fine and actually elicited the feeling of the depicted scene far better than a mere parade across the stage.
As Carmen, Varduhi Abrahamyan has a fittingly brazen, louche glamour, and her voice sounds splendid, lusty and lush; the "Habanera" may have simply become too familiar and predictable to elicit much excitement, but she certainly shone elsewhere. Gianluca Terranova makes his role debut as Don José, and his powerful tenor conveys the character's strong, uncontrollable passions, while his acting style also brings out the character's timidity, his guilt and his obsequiousness toward Carmen, an effective and dramatic combination: His Don José may imagine that his timidity is the same as tenderness, but Abrahamyan's Carmen finds his conventionality and uncertainty a point of annoyance.
All in all, the leads create a thoroughly believable set of dramatic circumstances that come across in interesting ways in various scenes and arias, such as Terranova’s finely rendered “Flower Song.”
Nicole Cabell as Micaela manages to bring out some of the character’s old-school, hometown innocence but also her daringness under duress; her desperate journey to the mountains and a brief exchange between Micaela and Carmen are especially memorable.
Crowd scenes, of which there are many, can occasionally feel too chaotic or oddly paced — it’s hard to know where to look — but there are often compelling little vignettes observable in the chorus and supernumeraries, and a scene of actual frenzied, festive chaos in the tavern is thoroughly effective. Conductor Arthur Fagen keeps the emphasis on strong rhythm in that frenzied scene and elsewhere such as the overture, giving fast passages energy and excitement while also paying due attention to slower melodies’ varied textures as they move across orchestral sections.
“Carmen” tells a pretty simple story, but it takes its time doing it: The length — nearly three and a half hours — even belies the sort of universal, simple directness of the narrative. Still, action seems to develop at a fine pace across the evening’s four acts, and even those who have never been to an opera before and seldom listen to classical music will recognize and enjoy many of the melodies. It’s all given energetic expression with an effective emphasis on dramatic storytelling.
The Atlanta Opera’s successful production makes it clear why “Carmen” has remained such an enduring classic, and a packed, receptive house on opening night certainly showed that the opera remains a draw.
The Atlanta Opera presents Bizet’s “Carmen”
7:30 p.m. May 1; 8 p.m. May 4; and 3 p.m. May 6. $50-$156. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.