BY STUART DUNCAN
"Carmen" has for some time been the most popular opera in the world. Oh, sure, there are competitors — "La bohème." "La Traviata," "The Marriage of Figaro" perhaps, but the Bizet masterpiece reigns supreme. Surprisingly it was not always so. The world premiere in Paris in 1875 had its critics, especially since it debuted at Opera-Comique which was a family-oriented site and many in the opening night audience questioned the subject matter and especially the undignified characters.
That opinion, however, was short-lived and today "Carmen" draws huge crowds. The latest production is a joint effort between Opera New Jersey and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, which has just opened at Princeton's McCarter Theatre to a packed house, despite warnings of a major snowstorm. And the audience saw a production that broke new ground — for staging and dance as well as developing new stars for the opera firmament.Stage director Bernard Uzan has visualized the setting as a Spanish bull ring, with his crowd a chorus (of 49 voices) assembled across the back of the stage in tiered rows as spectators, with the action unfolding beneath them. Moreover, her has used dancers as an integral part of the plot. And thus, the chorus sings the roles of the cigarette factory girls while dancers, nine of them, in balletic moves portray the action.
It is a vision that Mr. Uzan tried out 15 years ago in Montreal and has held onto since then. It has been brilliantly augmented by choreographer Peggy Hickey, costumed stunningly by Patricia Hibbert (her 16th production with the company) and lit with great distinction, primarily in reds and shadowing by Michael Baumgarten.
Though "Carmen" is practically performance-proof, its title role is not. Sopranos of every description have attempted to meet its (not too difficult) vocal and (all too difficult) dramatic challenges and a significant number of them have come to grief. Kirstin Chavez is easily one of the most riveting and significant young artists performing today. She debuted as Carmen two years ago in Sydney with Opera Australia and critics judged that performance as "stunning — a rich, powerful voice, full of Bohemian fire and earthy sex appeal, a velvety mezzo in the same black and scarlet tones as her costumes." To that can well be added, complete ease in the role, plus exceptional dancing ability and fine acting.
She has sung the role 10 times since Australia, including the New York City Opera, Opera Minnesota and Tokyo City Opera. It is perfectly obvious that she is well on her way to becoming one of the most definitive Carmens of all time.
There is much more: Richard Leech is a strong, confident Don José (he has sung the role 17 times,) especially in the final act when it is obvious all is lost. Steven LaBrie stands out in the small role of Moralès. Caitlin Lynch is particularly appealing in the difficult and often unappreciated role of Micaëla. It is her first time in the role and she shows huge promise. Peter Volpe is an audience favorite and his Zuniga was handled to perfection. Joseph Rescigno conducted with what seemed easy control of the 35-piece orchestra. "Carmen" will be sung again on Friday Feb. 12th at 8 p.m. in Newark at NJPAC. A final performance is scheduled for Feb. 14 at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore.