The gypsy sorceress Carmen sauntered into Annapolis over the weekend to shatter 35-year-old box-office records with the company's first-ever sold-out performances for both Friday and Sunday.
Most opera fans who attended should not have been disappointed by what they heard in a fully staged production that brought together the talents of the Annapolis Opera, Annapolis Symphony Orchestra the Ballet Theatre of Maryland, and a lively children's chorus along with an adult chorus to support the stellar singers in leading roles.
This Carmen production was visually exciting as well, featuring interesting sets that were sensitively lighted and attractive along with professional-looking costumes for all performers.
Georges Bizet's Carmen offers a fabulous score of familiar arias and provides verismo tension and high drama among its very human characters.
Free-spirited Gypsy femme fatale Carmen, who can capture every male heart and is ruled by her passions, cherishes her freedom above everything.
Corporal Don Jose is a dutiful soldier who dreams of home before Carmen arrives in the piazza to toss him a rose that sends a powerful message.
Having fought with others in the cigarette factory, Carmen is destined for jail until Jose allows her to escape. Jose goes to prison, and when he is freed goes immediately to Carmen, who persuades him to desert his regiment to join her in her Gypsy life of crime.
The story, perhaps focused as much on Jose as it is on Carmen, originated in Prosper Merimee's 1845 novella about a Spanish soldier recounting how he came to kill Carmen as he awaits his execution.
Now one of the world's most popular operas, Carmen didn't debut so well, with a famously hostile premiere in 1875 Paris that is said to have contributed to 36-year-old Bizet's death three months later.
Some ascribe the mixed reaction of the premiere audience to difficulty with the opera's realistic and violent characters -- which made Carmen the first verismo opera.
In Annapolis Opera's production, Leslie Mutchler as Carmen grew stronger in the role after what struck me as an unexciting opening. Her "Habanera" conveyed Carmen's insolence but lacked the expected smoky sensuousness. Perhaps her voice needed to warm up, because a few arias later Mutchler sang a throaty, sexy "Seguidille" to mesmerize Jose and the audience to end Act 1 on an exciting note. In Act 2 Mutchler's passionate duet with Jose on his return from prison invested her Carmen with a fully dimensional persona and had the added grace of her sensuous dance.
Having sung the Don Jose role opposite diva Denyce Graves' Carmen, tenor Richard Crawley was clearly up to the task, although initially he seemed to over-sing in his Act 1 duet with Micaela. Crawley soon overcame this tendency as he confronted Carmen. Crawley's Act 2 "Flower Song" was gorgeous, lyrical and filled with passion.
Soprano Danielle Talamantes as virtuous Micaela displayed a lovely, clear voice in her opening duet with Jose and sang a beautiful Act 3 aria warning Jose of his mother's impending death and begging him to return home with her. Micaela is often a one-dimensional character, but Talamantes invested her with courage as she confronted Jose.
Baritone Jimi James was a standout as Escamillo: His powerful voice conveyed all the strength and glamour of the famous bullfighter along with his passionate attraction to Carmen.
Gypsy characters were well sung by Erika Person as Mercedes, Laura Choi Stuart as Frasquita, Charles Stanton as Dancairo and Kerry Lee Jennings as Remendado. Together, they delivered an inspired Act 2 quintet with Mutchler's Carmen.
Christopher Austin sang the role of Jose's captain and rival Zuniga, and Jay Jung sang the role of Morales.
Ballet Theatre of Maryland director Dianna Cuatto created inspired choreography that was well executed by dancers Jessica Fry, David McAlister, Sarah Neilson, Scali Riggs, Calder Taylor and Brian Walker to contribute Spanish color and excitement.
Annapolis Opera musical director and conductor Ronald J. Gretz brought all the color and drama required by Bizet's marvelous score. Stage director Braxton Peters did his usual first-rate job of convincing us that Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts can accommodate smoothly paced grand opera.
Set designer Arne Lindquist created a minimalist set that consisted of columns that could assume various configurations to move from a piazza outside a cigarette factory to a smugglers' cave to a space outside a bullring, managing seemingly to expand the confines of Maryland Hall's stage limitations.
This production of Carmen richly deserved the prolonged standing ovation offered by the capacity audience to celebrate the company's 35th season in grand style.