Opera Santa Barbara made a memorable debut at the Granada on Saturday with George Bizet’s Carmen. Santa Barbara Symphony music director Nir Kabaretti was in the pit with a large and wonderful orchestra, and the singers and the production were first rate. Emily Langford Johnson sang the title role as if she were born for it. As her suitor, Don Jose, Michael Hayes was also splendid, earning roars of approval from the appreciative audience with his heart-wrenching flower song. Some of the most magical moments of the evening belonged to Rena Harms as Micaela, the original object of Don Jose’s affections. Harms consistently found the sweet spot with her singing, and took the prize for establishing the most noticeable and exquisite rapport with the orchestra. At times during Act III, Harms seemed to be singing directly to the conductor in the pit, and the result was heavenly.
Carmen contains some of the most familiar music ever written, including Escamillo’s toreador song and the irresistible “Habanera” with which Carmen introduces herself to the troops. When an opera spins off as many “hits” as Carmen has, one wonders whether the pieces can ever be fit back together again into a coherent whole, but in this instance, the concern is unfounded. Carmen is as carefully crafted and full of drama and musical pathos as any of the great Italian classics and in its own way approaches the perfect balance of music and action associated with the operas of Mozart.
Director Vernon Hartman follows recent practice by preferring Bizet’s original spoken dialogue to recitative, and adds charming flamenco dance sequences to the entr’acte music. The staging of the crowd scenes was very impressive, especially in Act IV, when the audience at the bullfight could be seen immediately behind the main action.
No Carmen would be complete, however, without a truly compelling mezzo-soprano in the lead, and Johnson more than fulfilled that requirement. Her castanet dance was thrilling and sexy, and her mood swings were convincing and emphatic. Sara Campbell and Ciera Lamborn made excellent company for her in the roles of Mercedes and Frasquita, respectively.