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A Lotta Dance, A Lotta Design Make This A Bold ‘Carmen’

HGO - Carmen - Dress Rehearsal - Photographer Lynn Lane-149Ana Maria Martinez as Carmen, Brandon Jovanovich as Don Jose in the HGO’s Carmen. All photos by Lynn Lane

HOUSTON — Larry Kelly, co-founder of the Dallas Opera, liked to say that opera was superior to the other arts because it encompassed all of them. While the “superior” part of that proposition is arguable, there’s no question that a well-thought-out and well-integrated inclusion of the non-musical arts can add greatly to the success of an opera.

That certainly is the case with the Houston Grand Opera’s latest production, Georges Bizet’s Carmen. There is far more dancing, dramatic directorial intervention and design coups than you would expect to see in the typical Carmen. Yet instead of overwhelming this great musical drama, they consistently enhance it. This is one Carmen that has a strong emotional pull.

Major credit should go to Rob Ashford, who is listed as both director and choreographer of the production. His résumé includes far more Broadway credits and Tony Award citations than operatic listings. This, combined with the fact that the printed program lists thirteen solo dancers, was a signal that this was going to be a dance-heavy production.

HGO - Carmen - Dress Rehearsal - Photographer Lynn Lane-4 (1)

Um, right. So what’s with the bull’s head? Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva (left) and Rasta Thomas.

Indeed it was. Ashford’s choreography begins at the beginning and remains a factor throughout the opera. The atmosphere is Spanish (of course), the execution always professional, and the drama is often heightened by dramatic groupings, sometimes involving the singing cast. Ashford has a keen sense of when enough is enough and he almost never steps over the line.

The one questionable innovation is the inclusion of a dancer (Rasta Thomas) who represents a bull. He wears a bull head with horns and reappears (silently, of course) at key moments. A little distracting, especially when his demise coincides with Carmen’s.

One interesting Ashford innovation is a slight softening of Carmen’s feelings toward Don José even as their split becomes inevitable. A gesture or a glance does it. Carmen has regrets, it seems, though at the end she is as hard-hearted as ever.

The designs of this Carmen are bold. The closed curtain is fringed with bright material that might be a long row of bullfighters’ capes. In the first act, two large, curving stone walls under a dramatic sky change color as lighting shifts. The mountain scene of Act 3 holds what might be the giant slabs of a marble quarry. Carmen dies in front of a high bullring wall upon which are the stark silhouettes of numerous choristers.

Chief designer is David Rockwell, with credit also going to two associates, Dick Jaris and Ann Bartek. Donald Holder’s lighting, both subtle and grim, is superb.

Although not as striking as the choreography and set designs, the musical performance I heard in Brown Theater on Wednesday night was capably sung and acted. Carmen was sung by a soprano, Ana María Martínez, rather than a mezzo. This may have robbed the performance of a little weight, though Martínez’ acting skill was certainly not lacking.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich brought both lyric beauty and sympathetic engagement to the part of Don José and contributed much to the power of the final scene. Soprano Natalya Romaniw as Micaela was another lyric winner, while Ryan McKinny as Escamillo exuded macho charm.

Filling out the cast of soloists were Samuel Schultz (Moralès), Robert Gleadow (Zuniga), Uliana Alexyuk (Frasquita), Carolyn Sproule (Mercedes), Reginald Smith Jr. (Dancaire) and John McVeigh (Remendado).

Conductor Rory Macdonald led a highly atmospheric performance by the Houston Grand Opera orchestra and chorus.

Carmen will be repeated on May 2, 4, 8 and 10.