I envy colleagues who have heard mezzo-soprano and UNC alumna Victoria Livengood from her earliest recitals through her successes as a world-class singer-actress. The Thomasville native was a student of Stafford Wing. Having missed her 2001 Raleigh performances in the title role of Bizet's Carmen , for the Opera Company of North Carolina, I could not resist catching Opera Carolina's April 27 matinee performance of the same work in the Belk Theater, N.C. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte. Like the Virginia Opera's Sunday afternoon offerings in Richmond, Opera Charlotte's matinees make for attractive day trips for discerning Triangle or Triad opera lovers (who should avoid I-85 and I-77 and take instead Highway 49 from Asheboro to Charlotte, where it becomes North Tryon Street and runs directly past the performing arts center).
Victoria Livengood was a dominating vocal and physical presence as Carmen, brought to the stage from Prosper Merimee's novella. She has a rock-solid chest voice, and her low mezzo-soprano range borders on a true contralto. I was wowed by the quality of her voice throughout its range and by her nuanced spectrum of expression. Like the entire cast, she had superb diction. She threw herself physically into the role to an astonishing degree. As in her recent Samson et Dalila (reviewed by CVNC ), her dance of seduction was more than credible. Her Carmen was almost a force of nature, and the sure building of the tragedy would have satisfied a connoisseur of Greek Tragedy.
An unexpected delight - because it is all too rare - was the glorious quality of her Don José, tenor William Joyner. His beautiful, warm and full tenor was evenly produced and projected. His portrayal of the growing disintegration of the "mamma's boy" was entirely convincing, and his arias weren't just showpieces but character portraits adding to the drama. I will look forward to hearing him again in the future. Good tenors are all too out of the ordinary in this Age of Mezzos.
Baritone Thomas Barrett rounded out the character of the bullfighter Escamillo who usually comes across as a loud blowhard. This bullfighter had the assured confidence of one about whom Babe Ruth would have said "it ain't bragging if you can do it." His arias made refined use of shades of dynamics and expression. His "love 'm and leave 'm" approach to relationships would have been a perfect - if brief - match to Carmen's - but then that would not have been tragic.
Due to the strong-willed performance of soprano Sujung Kim, Micaëla was nothing like the cipher she usually is. Her credits list both the National Opera Company and the Virginia Opera Company. Her clear, strong soprano was well supported and projected, and her characterization was the best I have seen in many regional productions of this work.
Carmen's friends would have done any regional company proud as star singers. The scheduled Fasquita, Lucy Tucker Yates (familiar from CVNC reviews), was replaced by soprano Rhonda Overman. Besides having a gorgeous stage appearance, which can never hurt, her voice had a finished quality throughout its range and was characterized by a crystalline clarity.*
Possessing a solid lower register, I could well imagine mezzo-soprano Mercedes Wood, the aptly named Mercédès of this production, singing a fine Carmen herself.
All the "lesser" roles were strongly cast, with firm-voiced singers whose clear diction and solid acting added much to this production. The Captain of the Guards, Zuniga, was Jason Budd. The smugglers were Bill McMurray (Dancaïro) and Jason Karn (Remendado). Kudos to Chorus Master Mark Tysinger and his very well prepared Opera Carolina Chorus for his singers' clear diction and projection. Fine ensemble was displayed by the Charlotte Children's Choir, prepared by Sandy Holland; these youngsters were believable street urchins. Dancers Emily Borthwick and John Whisnant brought appropriate Spanish dignity and controlled passion to their dance sequence, choreographed by Martha Connerton, in the Act II tavern scene.
I seldom referred to the projected titles, but they seemed both more complete and better translated than at any other Carmen I have attended.
Conductor James Meena led a taut performance, securing tight ensemble and polished playing from the substantial Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in the pit. As might be expected by the time of this third performance in the run, co-ordination between the pit and stage seemed flawless, and the orchestra never covered the singers. Belk Theater has some odd acoustical properties when an orchestra is in the large pit with its shallow stage overhang. At Cold Sassy Tree , the presence of speakers used for one of the singers' spoken sections led me to think that miking of the orchestra was responsible for an odd effect. This time, from my seat in row P, left orchestra, all the woodwinds and often the horns, which were seated under the overhang, seemed to come from between the lower and upper boxes to the left of the stage - opposite the effect from my right orchestra seat for the Floyd opera. Other than this, the sound was fine, and there were no problems with voices on the stage. The hall was designed in the European fashion, with horseshoe-shaped tiers of seating and shallow boxes surrounding the main floor. No seat is more than 135 feet from the stage, and there appears to be no significant overhangs between the tiers.
No doubt a lot of credit for the ensemble's fine acting and the production's many telling details were due to Stage Director Gregory A. Fortner, whose efforts were all in the composer's favor. What a relief it was to find a director not working at egotistic cross-purposes to the composer! The sets, designed by Hugh Lester, were excellent, and the lighting designer made good use of spotlighting to point up the scenes.
Carmen proved to be literally prosperous for Opera Carolina, which was, according to a spokesperson, a huge success for the company. Opera Carolina is our state's leading opera company and the only professional one that offers a true season of performances. Next year, the lineup includes Nabucco, Porgy and Bess, La Bohème, and Lucia di Lammermoor. Details will be posted in our 2003-4 series section soon.
When I attended the February Cold Sassy Tree performances, I didn't notice any extraordinary security measures except that the mall-like area adjacent to the theater had a lot of very professional-looking private security staff. Around that time, a Charlotte news story reported that all purses and bags were to be searched at events presented by the Carolinas Concert Association, in Ovens Auditorium. This was the régime used at the Carmen performance. I haven't noticed any unusual security like this at any of the Triad, Triangle or Down East venues I regularly visit.
*Edited and corrected 5/5/03.