DALLAS It was a red-carpet occasion at the Winspear Opera House on Friday as the Dallas Opera opened its season with Bizet’s Carmen. It was also the debut of new musical director Emmanuel Villaume, only the third person in that position since the company was founded in 1957.
From the first energetic downbeat, a confident Villaume took charge of the production. The opera constantly moved forward and never bogged down. Villaume gave his singers room to be expressive but held a tight rein. The quick tempi were lickety-split, but in the Act 2 quintet (“ Nous avons en tête une affaire”), the singers couldn’t quite keep up. At other times he luxuriated in Bizet’s glorious melodic gift.
As Carmen, mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine, in her American debut, sang the role with intensity, displaying a dark-hued voice that sailed over chorus and orchestra. She was more petulant than smoldering, but she sang the role magnificently.
As the hapless Don Jose, tenor Brandon Jovanovich dominated the production. His supple, Wagner-sized stentorian tenor produced both thrilling high notes and a gorgeous soft sound. The climax at the end of his flower aria (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”), usually blasted, floated like gossamer. Even better, he is a superb actor. His disintegration from stiff soldier to crazed madman was completely believable, physically as well as vocally.
Mary Dunleavy, a clear lyric soprano whom local audiences will remember as Mimi in the Fort Worth Opera’s production of La Bohéme earlier this year, was impressive in the role of Micaëla, showing just the right amount of steel under her maidenly shyness. Dwayne Croft, singing over a cold, made a fine peacock out of the matador Escamillio, always striking a pose for his adoring fans.
Kyle Albertson was appropriately stiff as Jose’s commanding officer, Zuniga, and John David Boehr — also an alum of Fort Worth Opera’s 2013 La Bohéme — was convincing as his fellow soldier, Moralès.
The set by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, little more than a graffiti-covered wall that occasionally opened in the center, left only a small portion of the stage for director Chris Alexander to use. Thus, chorus was always in an assigned spot and rarely moved.
The children’s chorus and the quintet of smugglers and tavern girls (Margaine plus Danielle Pastin, Audrey Babcock, Stephen LaBrie and William Ferguson) offered relief from the static staging.