The large audience that almost filled the Diana Wortham Theatre in search of excellent music and superb acting in the Asheville Lyric Opera's presentation of the great French composer George Bizet's Carmen did not go away disappointed. Indeed, I have never been present among an audience that responded to events on stage with as much uncontrolled enthusiasm as did the great majority of people around me, so much so that many times during the evening I had to remind myself that I was not attending a pop concert but rather an opera. No matter — almost everyone left the theatre with smiles of delight on their faces and expressions of approval dominating their conversation.
On the whole, it was not difficult to see why this production so delighted the great majority of the audience. Bizet's music, with its rich harmony, rhythms and passion, received a solid performance under the baton of guest conductor Robert Franz. The principal soloists, particularly mezzo-soprano Elise DesChamps as Carmen, tenor Brian Cheney as Don José, bass-baritone Mark Fitzgerald Wilson as the bullfighter Escamillo, and soprano Holly Cole as Micaela, were impressive vocally and dramatically and often drew sustained applause and shouts of approval from the audience. Soprano Colette Boudreaux and mezzo-soprano Amanda Gardner-Porter, who often accompanyied Carmen when she appeared on stage, are effective singers and actresses and know their way around the stage. The men's ensemble singing was not quite so effective as the women's, often displaying intonation problems which at times were quite impossible to ignore and became more unacceptable as the evening progressed. But most people in the audience paid little or no attention to such flaws.
The four principal soloists had difficult and tiring roles, and two of them had to be on stage almost all the time. Of the four, tenor Brian Cheney's portrayal of Don José and soprano Holly Cole's touching, believable realization of the simple, loving Micaela were the most effective dramatic and vocal realizations of character in the production. Both these excellent singers revealed voices of amazing power and great beauty. Cheney was in command of the stage, especially in the many scenes of heated conflict between himself and Carmen, when his big voice overcame Carmen's and made it obvious who would win the argument. He also had a physical presence that was often menacing in his tempestuous scenes with her, especially toward the end of the opera, and clearly foreshadowed the tragic conclusion of all the tensions between the two lovers. He was frequently guilty of over-singing in his efforts to make Don José's uncontrollable passion for Carmen believable, as many more experienced tenors performing this role have also done. Despite this technical failing, Cheney's booming tenor voice and effective dramatic realization of the passionate Don José soon made him the audience's favorite character. Moreover, in the role of Micaela, Holly Cole's big, exceptionally beautiful voice made her two extended arias satisfyingly effective. In both, her skillful acting and use of her wide vocal range allowed her to make Micaela's feelings for the heedless Don José real to her listeners, and her second superb aria was met, quite justifiably, with waves of applause and loud shouts of "Brava!" from all parts of the hall.
In the title role, Elise DesChamps' great beauty and dramatic skill were her greatest assets in her portrayal of Carmen, and her rich, powerful, sensuous voice made her character as a nineteenth-century "cougar" more than capable of handling Don José and Escamillo — at least for a while. Throughout the production the great majority of the audience who observed her actions and heard her control her lovers with her dark, rich mezzo-soprano voice admired her vocal and dramatic skills.
However, throughout many scenes in the opera, she revealed a vocal problem which often made her work less than effective. Her voice was often dominated by a vibrato that was too wide and shaky to enable her listeners to recognize the pitches she was singing. This vocal tendency is prevalent among many singers with great voices and prevents them from producing vocal tones of accurate pitch and pleasing color.
The bass-baritone of Mark Fitzgerald Wilson was just right for his role of Escamillo, the bombastic master of the bull ring whose ego and passion for Carmen were just as strong as his rival Don José's. His understanding of his role as the swashbuckling bullfighter was more than adequate. I was also aware that his grasp of all his music was at best shaky and that in several scenes his intonation was not accurate.
In conclusion, I must admit that what a critic hears and sees in an opera production is not always what the audience sitting around her may hear. On Friday night this was definitely the case.