Sultry and brassy, calculating and cruel, the character Carmen is, well, hard to like. By contrast, Bizet’s opéra comique of the same name playing in repertory at Glimmerglass Festival this summer is resoundingly popular, bringing audiences to standing ovations.

The shining virtue of this Glimmerglass production is the music—especially the singing. The singing glimmers like the rippling blue Lake Otsego situated behind the festival grounds, owing to a combination of well trained voices and skilled musicians together with a singularly magic ingredient—stellar acoustics.

© Julieta Cervantes.
© Julieta Cervantes.

The sound inside the Alice Busch Opera Theater is refreshingly balanced, giving audiences all the orchestra they need to hear combined with all the classically trained voices they want to hear in order to take the best measure of an opera. Such balance is not necessarily the norm. Some orchestras in fine houses—festivals even—drown out singers. The splendid acoustics this space affords is not something Glimmerglass operagoers take for granted. They love their theater, how it showcases singers, even younger singers sotto voce, and they generously return the adoration they feel at curtain calls.

It is the singing that elevates this new production of Carmen, from the leading and supporting players to the talented opera chorus. In the title role, mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson looks the sultry siren and has a smoky tone to her voice resulting in a timbre much older-sounding than her tender twenty-four years. Because the house is an intimate venue—914 seats to the last chair in the balcony—one can’t fully disguise the fluid stage movement of a twenty-something nor the idealism of a rising opera star singing a debut role. By the pivotal final scene with Don José, Costa-Jackson is not as believable. The story demands a jaded character, one who’s lived long enough—who’s suffered enough—to forfeit her life for her ideals. The role is too mature for her. But, to her credit, she gives a valiant effort.

As the man she torments, Don José, tenor Adam Diegel grows in the character with each succeeding act. His performance is a bit stiff in the beginning but by the final act his singing soars as his jealousy rages.

American Soprano Anya Matanovič nails every note. As are so many performers at Glimmerglass, she is also youngish in years but highly skilled. To her good fortune, she is cast as an impressionable and virginal character, and her performance is more than simply believable—it is spot on.

Kudos also to the programs Young Artists—Lindsay Russell, Cynthia Hanna, Alex Lawrence, and Juan José de León—appearing as supporting players, who sparkle each time they appear on stage, lending vocal richness and depth to the intricate trio, quartet- and quintet-singing Bizet’s score demands.

The Glimmerglass orchestra consists of professional musicians who come from all corners of the country to encamp there for the summer, and they deliver an exceptional sound that at times caresses but at all times lifts up the singers.

If I had to cite one weakness of the production, it was the staging. It was blocky, almost primitive, in too many spots for my taste. Principals were directed to cling to the proscenium and sing facing full front so frequently it reminded me of high school musical stage direction. While uninspired stand-and-sing blocking might be needed in some cavernous houses, the acoustics in the Alice Busch Opera Theater permit a more sophisticated use of the stage than this production demonstrated. Not to mention that the themes and style of the storytelling in Carmen are realistic. More natural and less artificial movement is therefore an expectation.

Sometime the staging was more than counterintuitive. It was downright clunky. At one point, Don José has to clamber atop a tavern table and pour out his overwhelming desire for Carmen. It seems totally incongruous that a fully-grown man, a soldier by profession, would pour out the deepest feelings of his heart while so conspicuously standing on top of a table.

Despite the directorial shortcomings, the show still succeeds in large measure thanks to the singers, the musicians, and Bizet's artistry, rousing the audience from their seats performance after performance, and thus is worth a look. Carmen continues through August 23.

***11