From the Virginia Opera, A Spellbinding 'Carmen'

By Mark J. Estren
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 16, 2006

Just when you think there can't possibly be anything new to see or hear in "Carmen," along comes Virginia Opera with a sparkling production that is equal parts glitter and nuance. General Director Paul Stuhlreyer III said it took 167 people to put together Friday night's performance at George Mason University's Center for the Arts. Every single participant deserves applause.

From the opening red-lit tableau, with cast members snapping their fingers like a 19th-century "West Side Story" gang, Dorothy Danner's staging was highly dramatic. The hustle-bustle of the first act was beautifully choreographed, especially a delightfully inventive children's chorus and changing of the guard.

By the time Cristina Nassif made her instantly dominating entrance as Carmen, Bizet's opera was already firing on all cylinders. Then Nassif turbocharged it, mixing sultry anomie with a hint of menace in the "Habanera," and clearly setting her smoldering sights on Brian Register's Don José at once. Nassif's voice has range and power, and the positions from which she can project it are amazing -- stretching, sitting, even lying down. She literally reels in the hapless Don Jose, capturing him with the rope he uses to tie her. Nassif also dances with enthusiasm, and clacks some mean castanets in Act 2.

Register has the makings of a fine Don Jose, with a good sense of the placid stolidity of the character, shot through from the start with flashes of violence. His voice is strongest in midrange, and on Friday night he used it up in the first three acts, making the final act a struggle. Vocally, Nassif was better matched with Eric Greene, whose rich, full tones made Escamillo's superficiality convincingly attractive.

In the thankless part of the super-good "anti-Carmen," Micaela, Catherine Cangiano sang with a clear, pure tone that fit the role ideally. It is Bizet's fault, not hers, that her appearances inevitably brought the action to a screeching halt.

Artistic Director Peter Mark conducted with his usual sensitivity to pacing: very quick in fast passages, nicely stretched out in emotive ones.

The reuse of the Act 1 outdoor set as the indoor tavern in Act 2 was odd, but the cave in Act 3 had real depth, and the setup of Act 4 was excellent -- bringing back the children and creating a crowd-control scene for Escamillo mirroring that of the soldiers in Act 1. Like Carmen's sorcerous rose, Virginia Opera's bewitching production was spellbinding.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company