Madison Opera’s Carmen So Easy to Love

Baseball may be over, but the season-opener is a home run

It isn’t just that Bizet’s incarnation of Carmen, the wanton gypsy girl who ruins lives almost as quickly as the composer strung together hit numbers in his opera, seduces Don Jose so easily—she is responsible for ensnaring many a first-time listener into the world of opera.

And having once fallen under her spell, we return often over a lifetime of opera-going to drink deep from the well of unforgettable tunes and inevitable demise of one of art’s most famous dual love triangles. When we do, we hope to experience a production that evokes 1830s Seville, gives us not just a fine mezzo who can mine the rich subtleties of her vocal part, but the more she can act, the better, a winsome tenor whose naivete is only exceeded by his musical ardor, and a supporting cast who is all in, since Bizet doesn’t skimp on the musical luxuries.

Friday night Madison Opera opened its 57th season with a return to Carmen (last heard here in 2009), and although the analogy might seem quirky to some, take it from a man who loves his baseball almost as much as opera: The World Series might have just ended (with records set for home runs, by the way), but Madison Opera just hit a grand slam.

I’ve heard and seen productions of Carmen that had everything except a great leading lady, and still enjoyed the investment of time. But when you have that special someone who brings the smoky, sultry seductress to life, then you’ve got a chance for something special. General director Kathryn Smith and artistic director John DeMain found theirs in Aleks Romano. Impressive as her performance was, it was borderline astonishing to learn that she was singing the role for the first time.

It was also discovered later that she didn’t even begin singing in earnest until the age of nineteen; perhaps that is to her advantage. In any case, she is quickly making up for lost time, having appeared at the Glimmerglass Festival and Washington National Opera. Seeing and hearing her now inevitably leads one to ponder where we might see her name in the next five years…

Despite the obvious power of the role, it is no slam dunk; it is easy to make the lower notes sound swallowed or almost strangled, and then there are some moments where the lady must hit and sustain some delicately floating high notes. Romano has quickly found just the right touch of inflection in the timeless moments of the “Habanera,” as well as being able to carry the “Gypsy Dance.” In the crucial Act II exchange which surrounds Don Jose’s great “Flower Song,” she can pivot in the blink of an eye from beguiling tenderness to biting insult.

Her ill-fated target was portrayed by another newcomer, nearly as impressive in his local stage debut (he first appeared here at Opera in the Park in 2014), Sean Pannikar (pictured above with Romano, credit James Gill). And believe it or not, he was also tackling this major role for the first time. Tall and lean, Pannikar made it look easy to act the young soldier, as well as project a fragility of character (and judgment!) in immediately throwing over the girl-next-door for this unexpected bundle of unbridled passion. Better still, he makes the vocal part sound natural, never straining for top notes, unafraid to sing softly even at the great high climax of the “Flower Song.”

Among the many excellent contributions of the supporting cast, one must mention Carmen’s BFFs, Frasquita and Mercedes. Brought to vivid, but not upstaging life, by Anna Polum and Megan Le Romero respectively, it is noteworthy that they are products of the Madison Opera Studio Artist program. Cecilia Violetta Lopez, as Don Jose’s would-be intended, Micaela, was charming in Act I and offered a potent mix of fear and faith in her prayerful Act III aria.

Still, all of this might have been mitigated, if not ruined, if we had been subjected to some willful reimagining of 1830s Seville, without smoking cigarette girls and bullfighter entourages. Happily, we were immersed from the first time the curtain was raised to a creative use of reality as Bizet imagined it in 1875, thanks to the local debut of director E. Loren Meeker. Her credentials are impressive, with multiple productions to her credit at San Francisco Opera, Glimmerglass and Lyric Opera of Chicago, to name a few. Her Carmen is full of wonderful touches that enliven the action, enhancing the flow of the story but never seeming capricious. Our first clue was the use of members of the children’s chorus, racing through the town square while the soldiers fight the ennui of observing the momentarily sleepy town. In the “Habanera,” Carmen doesn’t wait until the end of the aria to startle Don Jose by throwing the bewitching flower at him (he’s the only who has ignored her, of course), but peels an orange and drops pieces of the peel on his table (and him) while he’s trying to concentrate on his paperwork.

Last, but certainly never least, there is the other kind of direction that is essential to a winning production. There was never any doubt that John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra would deliver a wonderful performance, but there was an “x factor” to DeMain’s conducting that still eludes description. I started discussing it as I left Overture Hall Friday night, and it’s been rattling around in my head for two days, but I can’t quite define it. The closest I get is by saying that DeMain conducts Carmen with the same finely honed instincts that he brings to Porgy and Bess—but it seems an awkward comparison at best, since Bizet does not draw upon French or Spanish folk music the way Gershwin reimagined American music of disparate origins.

Credit the Lyric Opera of Kansas City for the evocative and flexible sets, and the Utah Symphony and Opera for the stylish costumes, and we must thank choreographer Tania Tandias for tasteful dance movements that were iconically expressive while making the singers look comfortable in the execution.

On deck is Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio in February; at that time of year, one hopes for a slam dunk.

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