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In a whirling flurry of flamenco dresses, toreador capes, monumental casting, impeccably cast principals, and a very large bull, Toledo Opera opened its latest offering, Georges Bizet’s Carmen, at the Valentine Theatre on Wednesday, in a production that flirts with artistic perfection.
Barring a few trifling details, it is the single best work mounted by the Toledo Opera in years. Every aspect of the production works in harmony to create tour de force of pure dramatic power.
The curtain opens on a plaza in Spain. The set is flat: Three arches and a few steps. The costumes are the sun-baked shades of dusty, arid southern Spain.
The first few minutes are a single dimension of nice. The Toledo Opera Chorus sings beautifully. The children’s chorus rattles off a patter song in perfect French.
Some of the main characters enter and sing admirably. A bevy of sultry cigarette factory girls saunter through the crowd. It is all, beautiful, nice, well-acted, but flat like the scenery, wanting energy, life, direction.
And then, Carmen.
Clad in a scarlet mantilla with a strategically placed blood-red rose, mezzo-soprano Alyson Cambridge does not just enter, she conquers. Her opening Habanera exudes a wall of undulating raw sexual force that takes the breath away.
In a split second, what was “nice” becomes a seething ball of palpable animal tension. She grabs every member of the cast and audience in the web she weaves, mesmerizing, seducing, delivering a bullet of pure lust straight to the heart — and that is only her first four minutes on stage.
What ensues is a three-hour downward slide into a fatal destiny that never lets up, and never once does the thought of time cross the listener’s mind. Cambridge so empowers the entire cast, they achieve artistic levels not seen before on the stage of the Toledo Opera.
She has it all: sings like a goddess, acts like a tigress on the prowl, and moves like a cobra ready to strike, all just one step from the brink of insanity.
Her intended victim is the soldier Don José, tenor John Pickle. Do not let his light-hearted opening banter fool; he is the perfect foil to Cambridge’s Carmen. The sexual tension between the two is electric. He is as consummate an actor as she; the pairing is simply stunning.
Pickle’s ability to crank out a high Bb’s pianissimo is the stuff of which Metropolitan dreams are made. His third act tribute to his dying mother is artistically moving to the point of drawing tears.
He is Cambridge’s match note for note, action for action, and the final scene of Act IV is worth every second of the wait.
Against these two is pitted soprano Christina Pier, Micaëla, the quintessential pure ingénue. She possesses a beautifully light, crystaline timbre, that has the ability to pack a wallop when needed.
Every fiber of her portrayal assures that heaven still exists somewhere in the mayhem and chaos left in Carmen’s wake.
The virile Toreador Escamillio, bass/baritone Alex Lawrence, has dashing looks and suave moves believable enough to serve as force to draw Carmen from Don José. He delivers a robust performance in his middle and upper registers, though he lacks the lower register needed to successfully navigate the full range of the role’s demands.
Completing the show’s perfection are a host of secondary voices (all of whom deliver top quality goods both in acting and vocally), the Toledo Opera Chorus (which spend almost as much time singing as the principals), a children’s chorus (who steal the show whenever they take center stage), six flamenco dancers who double as toreadors, and a host of supernumeraries.
The costumes are period, and the design masterfully follows the arc of the show, moving from muted and drab, to the full rainbow palette of a Spanish fiesta, and on to the grim dark shades of the impending doom foretold as Carmen’s fortune is read.
The simple set, as well, supports the action perfectly, creating mood, yet utilitarian. The lighting design and projected backdrops subtley support without drawing the viewer’s attention. Especially bewitching is the Don José’s dream sequence opening Act III.
Finally, the Toledo Symphony in the pit, lead by maestro James Meena, played with a precision and sensitivity that served as the ultimate capstone in this pinnacle artistic endeavor.
Carmen performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Valentine Theatre, 400 N. Superior St. Sundays performance is sold out, yet seats remain for Friday’s performance at 419-255-7464 or toledoopera.org. A preconcert lecture open to all ticketholders will be in the Grand Lobby one hour before the performance.