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HGO's Carmen Is the Ultimate in Gypsy Love

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The set-up: If there's one opera in the rep that lends itself to a Broadway makeover, it's Georges Bizet's evergreen and surprisingly modern tale of bad girl Carmen and her wayward love life. In its original 1875 form, the piece had spoken dialogue between the music passages, what the French called an opera-comique, what we now call a musical.

After a lukewarm Paris premiere - a few of the reviews were downright vicious, some were OK, not one was a rave - and Bizet's early death only four months later, the opera, supplemented with musical recitatives instead of dialogue, made a big splash in Vienna. The wise Austrians turned the tide for this archetypal wild lady of Spain. The work has made a splash ever since. Although there is no critical edition of the score and the opera's been tinkered with even before Vienna, what the Parisians reviled for its coarseness and bad taste has now joined the pantheon of opera masterpieces.

The execution: Even when sung through, as is this Houston Grand Opera co-production with San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, Carmen's still like a Broadway show. A very great one.

You can't beat the irresistible numbers that keep coming one after another. Carmen's opening song, the slinky "Habenera" that descends the scale, as she brazenly sings, "love is like a wanton bird that no one can tame;" or, soon-to-follow, her equally famous "Seguidilla," where she entices naive soldier Don Jose to her favorite tavern where she promises she will dance for him, along with other unsaid promises. Has any show had a racier beginning? We're hooked with these characters. Carmen lives by her own terms and makes no excuses. When she tires of a lover, she finds another. Unfortunately for her, she falls for an ordinary guy, and his conventionality ultimately drives him nuts with jealousy and possessiveness. Although in the arms of Escamillo, famous and respectable at last, she sealed her fate when she first fell for Don Jose.

Even sweet, virginal Micaela tempts Jose with purity of song, a grand opera duet that vibrates straight out of Gounod's Faust. The hits never stop. Egocentric matador Escamillo, smitten by fiery Carmen, enters with his famous "Toreador Song," parodied in perpetuity as "Toreador, don't spit on the floor, use the cuspidor, that's what it's for..." (That was awfully funny in fourth grade!)

There are lesser known beauties throughout the score, but beauties none the less: the wonderfully bouncy "Smugglers Quintet," a tongue-twisting patter song that literally flies along as the thieves merrily promote the bad life they love to live; the evocative "Card Trio," where friends Frasquita and Mercedes laugh at their good fortune, while Carmen accepts her deadly fate; Micaela's haunting prayer, "I say I'm not afraid,"as she wanders into the smugglers' lair to rescue her Jose. Then there are those exquisite Bizet "entr'actes," the four preludes to each act that set the scenes with such minimal effort but such maximum effect. Each is a miniature tone poem.

Just like any good show, there's plenty of opportunity for dancing. Tony Award-winning director/choreographer Rob Ashford ("Thoroughly Modern Millie") has an artist's eye for the pictorial and how to stage an effective crowd scene. Watch how he groups the chorus around Escamillo in Pastia's tavern. As the toreador struts down the table, the people change position to keep him strongly in frame. The focus always remains on him, but the foreground shifts imperceptibly, not twice but three times. This is mighty fine stage direction. The idea of the bull symbol (international "bad boy of ballet" Rasta Thomas), popping up whenever Carmen's "fate" motif is heard, is a bit of unnecessary overkill, but the pyrotechnical toreadors and those mantilla-draped senoritas with their clothesline-length skirts, thanks to costumier Julie Weiss, add immense color to the sun-drenched minimal vistas designed by David Rockwell and lit to perfection by Donald Holder.

Houston favorite, soprano Ana Maria Martinez, makes a dazzling gypsy gal. Her previously lyric voice has darkened into shimmering velvet and has added even more luminous luster. If there were an ad for this production, it might proclaim, "she sings, she dances, she flashes plenty of leg, she gets slapped twice, she's thrown into a wall, she's dragged across the stage and hauled onto a table, and looks sexy as hell." Martinez is the most physical Carmen since operatic superstar Geraldine Farrar in Cecil B. DeMille's silent classic from 1915. She is fearless. Wily and smart, her Carmen doesn't care about rules and propriety. When she commits, she expects her lover to do the same. If he falters, she's out of here. It's all there in her radiant voice.

If Martinez is spectacular as Carmen, tenor Brandon Jovanovich is a revelation as Don Jose. With his full-throttle voice, silvery timbre, and immaculate technique, he may turn out to be the next "heldentenor," that special rare breed of singer who can master the heft and clarion call of Wagner and Strauss. Within recent memory and a lifetime of Carmens, he's the only singer I've yet heard who makes the character of Jose fully credible. He makes this arc not only through his powerful acting, but through that plangent voice that can roar, whisper, declaim, and coo. Is there anything he can't sing without distinction? His HGO Don Carlos (2012) was inspiring, a blazing intro to this artist, and his Don Jose only seems to secure the promise. He meshes perfectly with Martinez. They send off sparks. And what's Carmen without sparks?

Baritone Ryan McKinny, having just smashed through the mists as impetuous god of thunder Donner in HGO's visually sumptuous Das Rheingold, adds another fine interpretation to his increasing opera rep as Carmen's new man in town. Although his resonant baritone doesn't have all the necessary heft to entirely fill the cavernous Wortham, his Escamillo is a picture-book matador. He sings his "Toreador Song" with real panache and twirls his cape-like coat as if staring down a mad bull. And is there anyone else on stage today who could fill out that skin-tight red outfit in Act IV as well? Carmen falls hard for him. Who wouldn't?

Soprano Natalya Romaniw, an HGO Studio artist, has the hardest job of all, portraying wimpy Micaela. The character was added to Carmen's libretto to soften the scandal the producers were expecting, and she does seem like a throwback to opera days long gone by. Virginal and skittish, she carries a torch for Jose, as well as letters from his mother and a not-so-subtle kiss to be given to her son by her. Her Act I duet with him is a beaut as is her final aria mentioned above. They are Bizet at his most radiantly old-fashioned, real crowd-pleasers. Romaniw makes the most of them with an attractive, open sound with hints of gold. She spins these melodies as if weaving a fine tapestry.

Bizet's subsidiary characters, none drawn with the finesse of Carmen or Jose, are finely etched by Uliana Alexyuk as Frasquita, Carolyn Sproule as Mercedes, Robert Gleadow as Zuniga, Samuel Schultz as Morales, Reginald Smith as Dancaire, and John McVeigh as Remendado. Even the children's chorus, under director Karen Reeves, keeps the cuteness under wraps and delivers some mighty fine singing. Meanwhile, maestro Rory Macdonald, whose conducting of Britten's Rape of Lucretia was a highpoint of HGO's 2012 season, keeps Bizet's spicy paella on full boil. The "entr'actes" are especially tasty.

The verdict: If you've never seen Carmen live on stage, this HGO production is the one to see. Steamy, provocative, and thoroughly entertaining, it's the ultimate in gypsy love. If only Bizet had hung on for another 140 years, he'd have loved this show!

Performances of Carmen at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, are scheduled for April 30; May 2, 4 (matinee), 8, 10. Purchase tickets online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $45-$390.

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