Some operagoers contend that Carmen, the fatalistic gypsy doomed to die, is unlikable. She antagonizes other women at the cigarette factory. She seduces men with abandon. She makes an inexperienced corporal of the guard fall for her, manipulates him into abandoning his military career for a life of smuggling, and then heartlessly turns him out like a pesky stray.

Rinat Shaham as Carmen / photo by Kelly & Massa Photography
Rinat Shaham as Carmen / photo by Kelly & Massa Photography

Based on the novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée, Georges Bizet’s French opéra comique is one of the most performed operas in the world. The music, hauntingly lovely and readily appealing, is legendary. Yet, it is the musical surprises that entrance us most, when his melody and/or orchestration take thrilling turns, completely different from that which anyone expects. Each prelude and entr'acte in particular showcases Bizet’s exquisite gifts for composition, captivating the careful listener like a leaf riding on a breeze that stirs or lulls then suddenly dips, flutters, and dances with joy.

Even though his music is beloved and despite the fact that the composer himself may have been infatuated with the prototype for his Carmen (as the program notes suggest), many operagoers still don't share his affection for his fiery heroine. Yes, Carmen the character is hard to love, but there were abundant things to adore about Opera Company of Philadelphia’s (OCP) production of Carmen, its 2011-12 season opener.

Credit must first go to the director David Gately, making his OCP debut with this show. Though his vision for the show was conventional, set in Spain in the early 19th century, it was planned and executed with extraordinary care and discipline. His direction was surprisingly consistent, not veering off onto some expressionistic tangent prompted by the challenges of staging four acts with four different backgrounds on the same basic set. His characters moved about with ease and variety. The versatile, multi-storied set designed by Allen Charles Klein complemented Gately’s direction, even earning applause for sheer grandeur at the outset of several acts. The final scene set at the bullfighting ring, including the procession of the cuadrilla, was picturesque—colorfully and evocatively wrought.

At the outset of the opera, the men of Seville are waiting expectantly for the women to appear. Believe me, the women in OCP’s Carmen were not only worth waiting for—they made the show. Each female principal was simply exquisite.

Mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham as Carmen inhabited the role. She looked the part with her exotic looks and dark curly hair. More importantly, she was ideally suited to the character—not just the vamping and sultry dancing the part requires but also in some unexpected actions like skipping and running with the physicality of a tomboy. She portrayed Carmen as a consummate alpha woman, admired by all red-blooded men but too much for any man to handle. Vocally, the part could have been written for Shaham. Her Carmen was earthy and powerful, her voice richly and refreshingly textured.

As the sweet and virginal Micaëla, lyric coloratura Ailyn Pérez was simply amazing—natural and believable, not cloyingly sweet like some Micaëlas. Pérez has a chameleon-like quality as a performer, immersing herself in her roles so deftly, it was almost inconceivable that this was the same woman who portrayed the flighty, fanciful Juliet in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet last spring. Pérez’s bright, pitch-perfect soprano soared through the house. Every vocal line was controlled and polished. She is a joy to watch, and I couldn’t help thinking that very soon, her abundant gifts will be transporting her to the greatest opera stages the world over to perform.

As Carmen’s gypsy friends, Soprano Greta Ball as Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Tammy Coil as Mercédès were truly outstanding in both vocals and characterization. They lit up the stage, particularly in Act III when they read the tarot cards in "Mêlons! Coupons!"

Even if the men in OCP’s Carmen had been masterful in every scene, they couldn’t have approached the prowess and performance quality of the women in this production. Unfortunately, the men were not equally nor as consistently strong. As Don José, tenor David Pomeroy had arrived in his role by the "Flower Song"—"La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" in Act II. It was a highlight of the show, powerfully and emotionally sung. From that point on, Pomeroy was fully invested in his portrayal. However, it’s hard to believe Carmen can fall for such a man by Act II if we don’t clearly evidence such passion in Act I.

As the toreador Escamillo, Jonathan Beyer’s baritone was sturdy and serviceable. Physically, however, he lacked the charisma one has come to expect will ooze from Escamillo’s every pore. (Yes, Ruggero Raimondi defined the role for a generation—the expectation of perfection dies hard for this reviewer.)

Two of the most promising portrayals were turned in by Eric Dubin as Le Dancaïro and Diego Silva as Le Remendado. The smugglers are written as scene stealing roles, and these two nearly do just that whenever they are on stage.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris showed his penchant for brisk tempos. On occasion, however, it seemed like the tempos marched right past him and the orchestra, and needed to be better controlled. At times the orchestra seemed too loud for the performers. Yes, Bizet’s music is a wonder, but people still come to opera to hear the singers foremost. Musically, the only other choice that puzzled me was "muting" the opera chorus in Act I. The chorus is a generous size, but they all seemed to be singing at one-quarter the volume in the opening numbers—a curiously ineffective and sleepy choice.

When the music of an opera is so well-known and operagoers have likely seen multiple versions over time, audience expectations are high. OCP deserves much credit for assembling a talented cast guided by a capable and seasoned director to mount a very solid Carmen that satisfied and frequently soared.