The always-popular Carmen of Georges Bizet contains all the ingredients needed to make it accessible to an audience of opera-lovers. The plot, with its focus on the passionate, romantic love between the cigarette girl Carmen and the young soldier Don José, the totally different kind of attachment between the virginal Michaela and the same Don José, and the sensual appeal of the toreador Don Escamillo for the sensually driven Carmen, has a universal appeal to audiences, and the well-known music, dances, and arias bring all these volatile emotions to brilliant life. Capital Opera Raleigh's fine cast, particularly the principal singers, possessed the ability to make Carmen an exciting experience for the large appreciative audience. Despite the company's fine singing, dancing and acting, however, some weakness in a critical role caused as much disappointment as satisfaction.
The great strength of this production was the superb performances of mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis as Carmen and the beautiful soprano Anna Kirby as Michaela. Lewis's dark, powerful voice is big enough to fill the theatre and capable of expressing her passion for her two lovers, Don José and Don Escamillo, as well as her hot temper and her pleasure in fighting with any woman who is foolish enough to get in her way. Her first aria (Act I), describing love as a rebellious bird that no one can catch, is of major dramatic importance because in it she makes clear that she sees herself as a woman as rebellious as the bird. All her music is imbued with the intention to love any man who strikes her fancy and be under the control of none of them. In other numbers, such as her joyous account of the pleasure she finds in drinking and singing in the tavern of Lillas Pastia (Act II), Lewis ably conveys, in facial expression and in her voice, another of Carmen's character traits: her enjoyment of free loving and free living. In Act III, Lewis the actress reveals yet another aspect of Carmen's nature in a cantilena foretelling her death as prophesied by the cards, causing her audience to hang on every somber note her dark voice produces. The best example of Lewis as singer and actress occurs in the final dialogue of Act IV, in the passionate encounter between her and the enraged Don José. As their argument grows more intense, he threatens to kill her, and she, although realizing that he will do so, is still determined to leave him for the toreador.
Anna Kirby as Michaela reveals a soaring, exquisitely beautiful soprano voice which allows her as much ability to reveal the love of this young woman for Don José and her pure intention to continue her service to his ailing mother as Lewis has in her expression of Carmen's uncontrollable passion for her lovers, and her intention to live as she sees fit. Kirby's voice is silvery and lyrical, at the same time conveying great dramatic power, especially when she passionately tells Don José of her simple desires. In Act I her deeply affecting duet with Don José has a beautiful melody which is a fitting expression of her love for him. During the duet she asks him to accept a kiss from his mother, which she innocently offers him, and to return the kiss. Act III includes music similarly revealing of Michaela's tenderness and purity of love, as she tries to find the words to tell Don José that his mother is dying. Michaela's music, with its sweetness and purity, and Carmen's, with its hot passion and tempestuous power, are Bizet's efforts to create the means through which the two singers can show through their voices and their acting abilities the great differences between the two characters they portray.
The major difficulty in Capital Opera Raleigh's production of Carmen involves Timothy Sparks, who was cast as the very jealous, passion-ruled Don José. Although Sparks possesses a beautiful, highly expressive lyric tenor, his voice lacks the size needed for this role, and all evening he tried unsuccessfully to overcome this problem. Don José's music sometimes allowed Sparks to utilize the expressive nature of his voice, and he made the most of these opportunities, especially in his duets and exchanges with Anna Kirby's Michaela. In the final act, focused on the expression of Don José's uncontrolled rage and passion when he finally knows that Carmen will leave him for her new lover, Don Escamillo, Sparks reached into himself for all the vocal power he had, and often found it. But frequently the struggle was too great. Sparks' forte lies in the style of Mozart and Rossini, and I know very well what he can do with music suited to his voice. All through Friday evening's performance I recalled frequently the beautiful vocal sounds he can produce in that lovely repertoire, which I hope he can offer again in the near future.
I end this review by acknowledging the fine ensemble singing of Allison Kokkeler (Frasquita) and Jennifer Gaspar (Mercedes). Also I commend the performances of Jesse Darden (El Dancairo), John Cashwell (El Remendado), Thomas E. Link (Zuniga) and Fred Rice (Morales). In addition, Steven Jepson (Don Escamillo) sang very well and looked and acted the part of a rather pompous bullfighter who knows very well how to control the women who fall madly in love with him.