Opening the season for Lyric Opera KC was Bizet’s Carmen, a traditional production by Anna Maria Bruzzese, grounded in the archetype of a Spanish plaza, picture-postcard-like at the start with all its hustle and bustle, then brutalized at the end by opera’s most notorious crime of passion. 

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Carmen)
© Don Ipock

The last time I saw Carmen, a few years ago in Philadelphia, I was much impressed by Daniella Mack in the leading role. Here, Ginger Costa-Jackson was very different in style, less wary and subtle, but always tough, flamboyant and exploitative (and of course, exploited). This was Carmen the singer-and-dancer who lives for the danger of it all and who actually walks towards her death in this production, daring Don José to do the deed which she believes is her fate. Her opening Habanera was quiet, lacking in heft at the lower end of her range; in general, her higher range was fuller. By the time of her Seguidilla aria at the end of the first act, her voice sounded more comfortable and her dancing at the end of the rope was choreographically brilliant. Carmen is always dancing at the end of a rope, one could say, her own rope, and one felt as if deep down, this Carmen knew it. 

Smugglers' chorus
© Don Ipock

Viktor Antipenko, arriving from Seattle where he is singing Melot in Tristan und Isolde, tonight replaced the scheduled casting of Eric Fennell as Don José. Antipenko’s tenor is resonant and expansive: he has excellent technique and expression. His voice wasn’t as lavish as some, but it was fine, beautifully sustained and full of feeling. Acting-wise, although less convincing as an uptight corporal, his degeneration into the desperate, shifty, obsessive harasser and avenger suited him more. His last desperate act of manslaughter was anticipated through small moments of choreography all along the way: the flower she throws that he says feels like a bullet, the ropes he ties her with after her factory-girl-fight, the knocked-over chair at Lillas Pastia’s, the low-level, physical altercations in the mountains while the chorus sings: violence had always been part of their relationship, and we never had a moment’s sense that it would be otherwise than at the end.

Viktor Antipenko (Don José) and Andrea Carroll (Micaëla)
© Don Ipock

If the production’s marketing aphorism “bad girls make good opera” rings true, the inverse “good girls make bad opera” doesn’t. Director Bruzzese is rightly sensitive to the power of the good girl Micaëla. Andrea Carroll portrayed her well as a spirited, strong, authentic woman who has the courage to pursue her straying beloved into the emotional and actual wilderness where he finds himself. Her soprano voice was sweet and lyrically pleasing, and graciously full on the high notes. It’s interesting, of course, in the only scene where she and Carmen meet, Carmen doesn’t really sing, so Micaëla outvoices her. 

Act 2 quintet
© Don Ipock

Aubrey Odle as Mercédès and Krista Renée Pape as Frasquita were delightful, and the Act 2 quintet, where they are joined by Joseph Park as Le Dancaïre and Wayd Odle as Remendado as well as Carmen, was funny and rhythmically spot on. Escamillo was sung by Richard Ollarsaba; I’ve seen him played more laddishly and crudely by some, heightening the contrast between himself and the erst-while respectable Don José; Ollarsaba looked and sang more gentlemanlike: a fine, resonant bass-baritone. 

What a wonderful opera Carmen is for the chorus! They get such good value as soldiers, factory-workers, gypsies, smugglers, urchins, and bullfighting fans. I thought they did an excellent job tonight, providing excitement, warning and the waves of terror and reaction necessary as fate plays itself out. After a somewhat tame overture, where the themes occurred rather too sedately, the orchestra under the baton of Roberto Kalb livened up.