According to a survey conducted by Opera America, Carmen is ranked #4 out of the 20 most frequently performed operas in North America. Too bad Bizet didn’t know this before he died, at age 37, just two months after Carmen‘s premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on March 3, 1875. Granted, Bizet received the French Légion d’honneur on that date, but the rest of his day didn’t turn out quite so well. The overall reaction to Carmen was less than enthusiastic, despite the presence of major composers such as Gounod, Massenet, d’Indy, Delibes and Offenbach in the audience, and the first run lasted for only 48 performances. Bizet would die of a heart attack on June 3, just after the 30th performance, and by the last few weeks of the first run the theater management was forced to paper the hall with free tickets. Nevertheless, Carmen quickly earned its “Top 10” status. It was premiered in Vienna in October 1875 to critical acclaim, and success followed success in every major city in Europe. After being revived in Paris in 1883, Carmen became so popular that it received its 500th performance on 23 October 1891, its 1,000th on 23 December 1904, and has remained one of the staples of the operatic repertory.
The performance of Carmen by the Boston Opera Collaborative at the Bulger Performing Arts Center on July 25 gave us plenty of reasons to understand why. Granted, the resources of this new and intrepid opera company are limited, but apparently not the talents of its members, who offered a fine performance of good old #4. Conductor Michael Sakir led the small and very young but very skilled orchestra with calm control and nice sense of pacing. The sets were minimal—essentially consisting of scaffolding, stairs and some hung sheets—but they were used to full effect, especially considering that there was no curtain to begin or end acts. For example, the first appearance of the chorus of female factory workers in Act I, as they sang under the scaffolding and behind the sheets, was very effective.
The costumes were also simple. In fact, they seemed to be essentially street clothes, with Carmen adding a red sash around her hips and the army officers sporting generic uniforms, but they also worked perfectly for this story at least. The stage direction under Nathan Troup was impressive: soloists, dancers and chorus moved fluently and purposefully on stage, the action always aligned with the story. The lighting, minimal as it was, still managed to convey a sense of mood and place.All of this would be irrelevant, of course, if the singers did not come through. They did, for the most part, but more importantly, many of these youthful voices showed real promise for the future. Brooke Larimer gave us a dark, husky Carmen. Daniel Erbe’s Don José had a tendency to slip into a caricature of Dudley-Do-Right, and the singer had some problems at the top of his register, but he proved a perfect match for Larimer’s rapacious Carmen. Escamillo was beautifully sung by Sepp Hammer, and Margaret Felice, with her drop-dead beautiful voice, was ideal as Micaëla. The cast was rounded out by other fine young voices: Taylor Horner (Zuniga), Bülent Güneralp (Moralès), Rachele Schmiege (Frasquita), Kristina Riegle Mercédès), Joel Buford (Dancaïre), and Brendan Buckley (Remendado). The chorus was terrific: they sang beautifully and acted well too.
There were problems, of course. This is “grand opera” after all. One major flaw in this production was the diction, or lack of it, that often made it difficult to understand what the people on stage were singing or saying. Someone also needs to help the singers with their French pronunciation. To cite just one example of many, the words “j’ai besoin de” kept being pronounced as “j’ai besoin day.” Ouch. There were also a few ensemble problems, especially when the orchestra was in one time zone and the singers in another. But none of these took away from the great accomplishment of the Boston Opera Collaborative in offering us another opportunity to enjoy and admire Bizet’s masterpiece.