- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Virginia Opera made its first appearance of the season at the George Mason University Center for the Arts this weekend with an impressive production of ‘s beloved “Carmen.” Soprano Cristina Nassif starred in the title role of the ill-fated gypsy seductress who breaks one too many hearts.

It’s hard to believe that “Carmen,” with its ever-popular toreador song, habanera “Fate” motif, and bullfighting music, was a flop when it was initially performed in Paris in 1875. Subsequent productions, however, established it as a staple not long thereafter, and it remains one of the few operas today with which most Americans have even a passing acquaintance, so enduring is its score.

Bizet’s masterwork is based on a lurid novella by French writer Prosper Merimee chronicling the life of a gypsy woman whose zeal for serial affairs would be right at home in modern Hollywood. In short order, she causes a riot in a cigarette factory, is saved from prison by Don Jose (who becomes her lover), joins up with a crew of smugglers and then pursues the toreador Escamillo — her next hunk-of-the-month — leaving the unhappy Jose behind.

The Virginia Opera’s “Carmen” was surprisingly lavish, jamming the smallish GMU stage with an evocative set, colorful characters and costuming and loads of terrific music. Wisely, this production was built around the impressive talent of Miss Nassif, a darkly beautiful young soprano who handled this mezzo role with aplomb.

Miss Nassif portrayed Carmen as a tempestuous devourer of men, her rich voice descending from a gorgeous sensuousness into a nasty, nasally, snappish French when she’s particularly disgusted with Don Jose’s lack of manliness. Add this impressive performance to her heartbreaking portrayal of Violetta in last season’s Virginia Opera production of “La Traviata,” and one begins to wonder why the Met has not been knocking at her door. In the meantime, however, we can revel in our luck and look forward to Miss Nassif’s return this spring in the Virginia Opera’s production of “I Pagliacci.”

As Don Jose, Carmen’s hapless suitor, tenor Bryan Register came on strong in the first act, his character gradually deteriorating throughout the rest of the opera as the gypsy seductress drew the life out of him. Unfortunately, by Act 3, his throat seemed parched — always a danger when the weather gets cold and heating systems dry the auditorium air out — and he struggled in the final stanza during Friday’s performance.

As Escamillo, the swaggering toreador who replaces Jose in Carmen’s heart, Eric Greene, with his robust, authoritative baritone, made it amply clear that rivals for Carmen’s hand had better get out of Dodge — or, in this case, Seville.

In the small but important role of the good-hearted Micaela, Jose’s hapless fiancee who’s callously replaced by Carmen, soprano Catherine Cangiano was deeply affecting. Starting out with a touch of uncertainty in Act 1, she delighted by bringing a rich, rounded lyricism to Micaela’s signature Act 3 aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante” (“I say that nothing frightens me”).

In the secondary roles, Wojciech Bukalski, Jason Kaminski, Aaron Pegram, Jan Cornelius, Sarah Austin, and Jamie Kotmair all were excellent.

Peter Mark conducted his forces with precision, and director Dorothy Danner brought an almost cinematic sense of pacing to the production, keeping the story moving forward and never losing the interest of her audience. The only thing in this “Carmen” that could have been improved was the generally mushy French diction of the chorus, particularly in Act 1.



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