Spoken and sung 

Indianapolis Opera
Clowes Memorial Hall
Sept. 29 and Oct. 1

Many may know; many others perhaps not: Georges Bizet's operatic masterpiece - and his swan song - Carmen, premiered at Paris' Opèra Comique in 1875 (a few months before Bizet's death) with spoken dialogue and singing interspersed. We're more used to hearing it with all music - accompanied recitatives (interpolated by Ernest Guiraud later that year for the opera's Viennese premiere) mixing with all those beautiful tunes we know so well. Indianapolis Opera stage director Michael Scarola much prefers Bizet and his two librettists' original concept, and makes a good case for it in the IO program booklet. Whichever way you like it - or whether it makes a difference to you - this IO's Carmen began their season early, an audience triumph last Friday with a Clowes Hall sellout.

The story of the gypsy seductress who works in a Seville cigarette factory and spurns one man as fast as she takes up with another is well-known, having many variants in literature. Bizet simply contributes to such a plot line a concentration of music so gorgeous, so highly inspired, so memorable that his opera's been at the top of the public-appeal charts ever since. Only Mozart has matched or exceeded Carmen in the use of memorable tunes to carry a story line - and sending his audiences homeward humming. And only Puccini's La Bohème has surpassed Carmen in number of performances to date.

Mezzo Elizabeth Batton, a familiar voice to IO patrons, sang last weekend's title gypsy. She delivered her opening "Habañera" with excessive opulence, but showed increasing vocal control as she progressed throughout the three acts (four in most productions). Whatever her vocal limitations, Batton's voice proclaimed a world-wise "street" woman who gradually came to realize and accept her imminent self- destruction.

Another frequent IO visitor, tenor Mark Thomsen, sang Carmen's (first) lover, corporal Don José. And, as in past IO productions, Thomsen's projection seemed occasionally forced, Batton getting the best of him in their many duets. Thomsen's "Flower Song" in Act 2 showed his best lyric vocalizing. Baritone Daniel Narducci completes the love triangle as Escamillo, the dashing bullfighter, who charms Carmen away from Don José as readily as she had stolen José's attention from his intended bride Micaëla. Regrettably, Narducci's introductory "Toreador Song" presaged an even more forced, uneven delivery, especially at his bottom registers, than Thomsen's.

In fact, none of the other male roles - Seth Keeton making his IO debut as Zuniga, José's captain, Samuel Spade's first IO appearance as officer Moralès and Nathen Bick as Remendado, one of Carmen's gypsy companions - showed exceptional singing. One wonders if engaging quality male singers is a bigger challenge for regional opera companies.

On the other hand, soprano Sarah Paige Hagstrom, singing Micaëla, has ranked consistently among the best voices in past IO productions, usually in secondary roles. Beautifully controlled, evenly centered, Hagstrom's Act 1 "reminiscence" duet, "Parle-moi de ma mére," with José and her later gypsy camp aria, "C'est des contrebandiers," produced the best singing of the opera, a fact not lost on the audience, who gave her the loudest, if not the most extended ovation. Hagstrom ought to be considered for more starring roles.

John Conklin's four sets, one for each act and each of Act 3's two scenes - a Seville public square, inside a tavern, in the gypsy camp and outside the Seville bull ring - would have seemed more contrasting if they had not all been dominated by a light-brown/beige color. Susan Allred's costumes were splendidly apropos, making up for the sets' monochrome.

IO artistic director and conductor James Caraher once again led the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra in a generally well-honed reading, one which could have used a bit more verve throughout. With trimming here, cutting there, excluding an entr'acte and relocating the one with the beautiful flute solo to just before the final scene, this production ran from 8:10 to 11:35. Three 20-minute intermissions - perhaps one too many - contributed excessively to the length.

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