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Review: Dallas Opera’s New Music Director Says Magnificent Hello with ‘Carmen’

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Brandon Jovanovich and Clementine Margaine in Carmen. Photo by Karen Almond

Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen is not only opening the Dallas Opera’s season, but is officially introducing French conductor Emmanuel Villaume as the company’s third music director (Nicola Rescigno and Graeme Jenkins preceded him).

Sunday afternoon’s performance in the Winspear Opera House was a magnificent hello by Villaume and the company. The conductor led an often brisk and always disciplined performance, the cast was strong, and orchestra and chorus were in great shape.

Another French musician, mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine, was Carmen. Her creamy mezzo is a joy to hear, and she is a gifted actress who managed, somehow, to make the gypsy seductress not only sexily fiery and steel-willed, but even occasionally vulnerable.

Another performer who combined a pleasant voice with a strong sense of the stage was tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Don José. His aria “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” one of the great moments in Carmen, was more moving than usual, and his interplay with Carmen at the end was outstanding.

Completing the quartet of the most prominent figures in Carmen were soprano Mary Dunleavy as Micaëla and baritone Dwayne Croft as Escamillo. Dunleavy was another pleasant voice in a cast full of them. Croft was singing with a cold, though only near the very end was there any obvious sign of vocal distress. Stagewise, he was in his element.

Rounding out this admirable cast were Kyle Albertson (Zuniga), Danielle Pastin (Frasquita), Audrey Babcock (Mercédès), Steven LaBrie (Le Dancaïre), William Ferguson (Le Remendado), John David Boehr (Moralès) and Thom Hawkins (Lillas Pastia).

Stage director Chris Alexander plays it pretty straight and therefore keeps it effective. There are a few stop-action scenes, which are enhanced by Thomas Hase’s lighting.

A plus are Peter J. Hall’s early 19th-century costume designs, setting the opera in the time and place its creators intended. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s sets — basically a weathered wall with changing elements — produce impact at the expense of playing space. Alexander works around that handicap admirably.

There was one weird audio glitch on Sunday. The announcement about turning off cellphones was virtually inaudible because there were conflicting musical and other sounds being broadcast into the hall somehow. Audience chatter didn’t help, either.