- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2008

True story: After catching Sunday’s matinee opening of the Summer Opera Theatre Company’s eminently enjoyable “Carmen” in Washington’s Harman Center for the Arts, my wife and I had dinner at a downtown restaurant.

Later, as we were leaving, a twentysomething hostess asked what we had just seen. Eyeing our programs, she answered her own question. “Eew, opera. I don’t like opera.”

“You’d like ‘Carmen,’” I replied, “because you already know the songs.” She gave me a skeptical look. “Try this one,” I said, singing (passably) the first few bars of “Toreador.”

“Oh, I know that one,” she said.

Of course. Everyone does. George Bizet’s 1875 “Carmen” is a veritable hit parade of popular songs that even today are deployed casually in everything from cartoons to commercials. Plus, the opera’s eponymous Gypsy heroine was rolling her own cigarettes a century before Virginia Slims and plowing through lovers at an enthusiastic clip that would make “Sex and the City’s” Samantha blush. Even in 2008, Carmen is still ahead of her time.

Sydney Harman Hall provided slightly dry but surprisingly intimate acoustics for this Summer Opera production. David Grindle’s blocking and stage direction were superb, nearly always placing soloists and ensembles in optimum position, allowing them to be seen and heard easily amid this opera’s energetic hubbub.

Donald Edmund Thomas’ lighting effects enhanced the work’s contrasting moods, while John Lehmeyer’s costume designs provided an exuberant bloom of exotic colors in a modern opera age obsessed with gloomy grays.

This “Carmen” uses Bizet’s original Opera Comique concept, which used spoken dialogue instead of the vocal recitatives added later. Though the music is sung in the customary French in this production, the updated dialogue is in English - perhaps a jarring choice aesthetically, but undeniably audience-friendly. At times, the singers were a bit stiff with it.

Fortunately, the cast’s vocal abilities generally were first-rate. Mezzo Teresa Buchholz was an outstanding Carmen, singing accurately and expressively while charging her character with a smoldering sexuality. Tenor Benjamin Warschawski was a more vigorous Don Jose than we usually experience, possessing the vocal heft to back up his character. He experienced some brief intonation issues in Act I, however.

In the small but important role of Micaela, soprano Lara Colby was sympathetic and believable as the girl Jose leaves behind. She delivered her signature arias with bell-clear tones tinged with a haunting wistfulness. Bass-baritone Thomas Beard portrayed toreador Escamillo with a dignified swagger, his hefty instrument anchoring the ensemble in key scenes. Remaining cast members were professional in every way.

The largely student orchestra performed consistently under the baton of H. Teri Murai, although a few more strings would have balanced the ensemble a bit better. The chorus was bold and enthusiastic but occasionally off-track with regard to tempo and diction.

WHAT: Summer Opera Theatre Company’s “Carmen,” by George Bizet

WHERE: Sydney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW

WHEN: Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

TICKETS: 202/547-1122

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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