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Review: Atlanta Opera kicks off its season with smart, solid take on Bizet’s “Carmen”

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Scott Hogsed and Melissa Shippen in Georges Bizet’s "Carmen." (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Georges Bizet’s opéra comique “Carmen” debuted in Paris in 1875 and was considered scandalous as it presented a sexually charged heroine with questionable moral character and culminated with her onstage murder. These days it’s nearly impossible to shock audiences (with the possible exception of Madonna, who rolls into Atlanta next week), and practically everyone can hum at least one melody from “Carmen,” as it’s one of the most familiar operas in the repertoire. Despite these debatable dilemmas, the Atlanta Opera produced an enjoyable and at times provocative rendition of “Carmen” to open its 2012-13 season Saturday night at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Jeffrey Marc Buchman — a former Escamillo and Zuniga himself — directed the production and framed the opera as a retrospective. The ill-fated corporal, Don José, looked on from a prison cell at the start of each act, remembering the events that led to his demise. Buchman cleverly partnered with his wife, dancer and choreographer Rosa Mercedes, to integrate Spanish dance throughout the show.

Six flamenco dancers emerged from the opening crowd scenes, from the gloom of Lillas Pastia’s tavern in Act II, and later as mountainside shadows during an entr’acte. Bedecked in authentic toreador costumes and capes in the final act, coordinated and rebuilt by designer Joanna Schmink, the dancers heightened the emotion of the bullfight with their stylized movements.

In the title role, María José Montiel gave an embellished performance. Every Carmen is a bit different, and I had expected a sensual and confident Gypsy this night. But Montiel’s Carmen evolved, emerging first as a coquette, juvenile in the famous Habañera. In Act II, she was invested and shrewish when José intends to return to the military.

Montiel’s voice is equally variegated. Her upper register is neither satisfying nor beautiful, but the color of her instrument in the middle and low voice is simply stunning. She has the ability to summon velvety warmth one moment and muscular intensity the next.

Mexican tenor Fernando de la Mora returned to Atlanta to sing the role of Don José. Last heard in the opera’s 2007 production of “Roméo et Juliette,” he seems to have ripened into a lyric tenor with an achingly beautiful high pianissimo and just the right amount of bravado. De la Mora’s first-act duet with his Michaëla (Melissa Shippen) and second-act aria “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” were close to perfect. Unfortunately, Shippen didn’t shine as brightly within her big aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante,” despite her innately lustrous voice.

Russian-American baritone Aleksey Bogdanov rounded out the international cast with an arousing portrayal of Escamillo, the bullfighter and José’s rival. Bogdanov’s steely voice was penetrating, an acoustic gift to squillo-loving opera fanatics.

The production boasted an adept crew of supporting singers. Amanda Opuszynski (Frasquita) and Kaitlyn Costello (Mercédès) were glorious, engaging in their own right. The classic opéra comique characters El Remendado and El Dancaïro, who provide comic relief at the tavern, were performed by Adam Kirkpatrick and Adam Cannedy respectively. Tyler Simpson sang the role of Zuniga with a hefty bass voice and a formidable stature that commanded our attention.

The Atlanta Opera may be lacking a general director these days, but it seems to be in good stead with its relatively new musical director, Arthur Fagen, who conducted the opening-night performance. Opera is a profoundly complicated machine that depends upon a balance of forces, and Fagen’s orchestra hummed along pleasingly, supportive of singers but revving up at appropriate moments to bolster the drama. Walter Huff’s chorus performed exceptionally well, as always, and was joined by an adorable and dynamic children’s chorus prepared by Will Breytspraak.

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