From the moment the curtain went up on Princeton Festival’s production of Charles Bizet’s “Carmen,” seen by this reviewer on opening night, Saturday, June 23, we knew that we were in sun-drenched Seville, thanks to set designer Eduardo Sicango and lighting designer Benny Gomes. Until the curtain rises, the audience sees simply a drawn curtain and a single percussionist, the sole visible member of the orchestra.
With the overture, the orchestra, conducted by Richard Tang Yuk, artistic director of the Festival, opens the evening explosively. The instrumentalists begin without a moment’s delay after the lights go down. They play with unusual clarity and musical tension throughout the opera. The intensity of solo instrumentalists — winds, percussion, and strings — contributes to the drama of the piece, as does a flute and harp duet at the beginning of Act III.
Director Steven La Cosse opens the opera by showing the civic life that plays out in the square in Seville onto which opens the cigarette factory where the gypsy Carmen works. Pedestrian traffic cuts across the area. Soldiers eye the passersby. A flower vendor wheels in her cart. A band of 27 children trained vocally by Dawn Golding marches across the space with controlled unruliness at a brisk tempo. Each child in the group has different personal characteristics; their gaits and energy levels vary; some have distinctive personality quirks.
When Carmen (Jessie Raven) enters, the energy level makes a definite upward leap. Raven leaves no doubt that Carmen is in command in this opera. Tall, beautiful, and lithe, Raven wears a red shawl draped at the waist of her white dress. There is no defense against her seductive advances. She flirts with Corporal Don Jose (Todd Geer) because he is not interested in her — and wins his love. Jose is engaged to Micaela (Christina Pier), a soberly-dressed country girl, paragon of loyalty and innocence. John Lehmeyer is responsible for costume design; Amanda Miller, for wigs and makeup.
Torn between the virtuous Micaela and the provocative Carmen, Jose is tormented. Emotional vocal performances by all three contrast their characters. The versatile Raven’s torrid Carmen taunts and spits; she sings, dances, and uses castanets simultaneously. Her mezzo-soprano voice is a human thunderstorm. Pier’s modest Micaela effectively displays her virtue vocally with power and accuracy. Geer shows Jose’s suffering in a vocal performance laden with nuance; his Act II Flower Song, where he tells of his love for Carmen, is particularly passionate.
Lieutenant Zuniga (Branch Fields) turns in a noteworthy performance as Jose’s commander. Fields has a strong voice and his French diction is probably the best of the evening.
Vocal ensembles are well-balanced. Particularly memorable is the Act II quintet where Carmen is joined by smugglers Dancairo (Charles Schneider) and Remendado (Gregory Mercer), along with Carmen’s friends Frasquita (Sara Pardo) and Mercedes (Ezgi Kutlu). Similarly compelling is the Act III trio where the cards of Carmen’s friends foretell good luck and Carmen’s cards foretell death.
Choreography by Graham Lustig adds to the impact of Act II, where two dancers join other merry-makers at the Inn of Lilas Pastia (Daniel Greenwood). The movement is gypsy-like, laden with tension.
The deficiencies of the opera, if there are any, lie with language. French diction was a problem for those who like to have a fighting chance of understanding speech in the original language. “Carmen” presents a particular problem when it comes to diction because the opera includes a relatively large amount of spoken dialogue, for which the low-contrast titles were difficult to read with sufficient speed. Good diction would have been agreeable. Then again, one might ask whether it is reasonable to expect that all those gypsies and Andalusians would speak easily-comprehensible French.
Carmen, Friday, June 29, 8 p.m., and Sunday, July 1, 2 p.m. Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, Princeton. Four act opera based on Prosper Merimee’s novella features Jessie Raven, Philip Webb, Christina Pier, Zeffin Quinn Hollis, Charles Schneider, Gregory Mercer, and Branch Fields. Also, Princeton Festival children’s chorus, adult chorus, and orchestra. Conducted by Richard Tang Yuk and directed by Steve La Coss. $25 to $110. 800-595-4849.