Theatre Reviews
Elise Quagliate and Brendan Touhy. Photo by Dan Donovan

Union Avenue Opera is opening its 30th season with Bizet's "Carmen," a venerable work which, according to a New York Times article from some years back, is the fourth most-performed opera in North America.  And why not?   It has drama, it has some of Bizet’s most memorable and therefore most popular melodies and last – but most definitely not least – it has sex.

Joel Balzun
Photo: Dan Donovan

No, it’s not R or even PG sex, but when Carmen sings the famous "Habanera" while sinuously gyrating around army corporal Don Jose, there’s not much room for doubt what everybody is thinking of when they’re singing about l’amour.  The theatrical vitality of a production of “Carmen” hinges on the ability of the mezzo in the title role can convince the audience that she’s so utterly irresistible that she can entice a straight arrow like Don Jose to abandon the military life and join Dancaïre and his merry bandit band.

Mezzo Elise Quagliata, whose resume includes roles as diverse as Fricka and Sister Helen Prejean, is a slinky, seductive, dangerous Carmen. She’s completely believable as the most desirable woman in Seville and has a big voice to go with it. "Si je t'aime, prends garde à toi!" ("If you love me, beware") indeed.

Meroë Khalia Adeeb
Photo: Dan Donovan

Her chemistry with baritone Joel Balzun’s swaggering, supremely self-confident toreador Escamillo is palpable.  Balzun has a booming voice that they could probably hear out on Delmar on opening night. He completely dominates the stage during the familiar Toreador song in Act II.

There are stellar performance in the supporting cast as well. Micaëla, for example, far too often comes off as a simpering victim. Not so in soprano Meroë Khalia Adeeb’s performance, which adds  some backbone to the character.

Mezzo Holly Janz and soprano Gina Galati (General Director of Winter Opera) are in very much the same league as Carmen’s friends Mercédès and Frasquita. Their voices blend perfectly in the Act III fortune-telling number (“Mêlons! – Coupons!”) as they shuffle (“Mêlons”) and cut (“Coupons”) the cards to reveal increasingly fanciful versions of their futures. Baritone Jacob Lasetter is properly cynical at the ethically flexible Lieutenant Zuniga.

As Don Jose, Brendan Tuohy is vocally solid, as he demonstrated in his Act II “Flower Song” ("La fleur que tu m'avais jetée"), but overall his character lacks passion. I didn’t see the journey from loyal soldier in Act I to delusional killer in Act IV, and without that Jose can come across as more pathetic than tragic.

Holly Janz, Marc Schapman, Elise Quagliata,
Xavier Joseph, and Gina Galati
Photo: Dan Donovan

The orchestra has never sounded better under Scott Schoonover's baton and the chorus is, as always, first rate. Marc Freiman’s stage direction is straightforward and keeps the action moving without drawing attention to itself.

Viewed from a contemporary standpoint, the libretto of “Carmen,” based as it is on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, clearly looks sexist and, in its treatment of “gypsy” subculture, a tad racist. Attempts to update the opera and somehow modernize the characters tend, in my experience, to create more problems than they solve. Treating “Carmen” as the period piece that it is dodges those bullets and, ultimately, make it easier to enjoy the experience of seeing it. Especially when it’s done this well.

The bottom line is that this is, hands down, the best “Carmen” we have had locally in over a decade. Performances are in French with English supertitles and conclude this Friday and Saturday, July 12th and 13th, at 8 pm at the Union Avenue Christian Church in the Central West End. Don’t miss it.

Related Articles

Sign Up for KDHX Airwaves newsletter