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Turning up the heat on Carmencita 

Just over five weeks after the Met's Live in HD rebroadcast of the new production of Bizet's Carmen at the Regal Stonecrest cineplex, Opera Carolina had the audacity to radically re-imagine their staging of one of the most beloved scores in the repertoire. They had to do it with a substitute singer in the title role after Denyce Graves came up with a bronchial virus in January, forcing her to cancel a string of scheduled diva visitations in Princeton, Newark, Baltimore, as well as Charlotte.

So instead of Graves matching up against Met sensation Elina Garanca, it was -- Kirstin Chavez? Not bad at all, as it turns out.

Chavez put out even more come-and-get-it wantonness to the Spanish dragoons in the Habanera than Garanca, but the huskiness of her mezzo voice -- so crucial to the overall sensuality of the seductress in the Seguidilla -- didn't reach its full flower until the last two acts, when Carmen is more about freedom than pleasure. Even then, that huskiness only approached Garanca's richness, and Chavez's upper range, though secure, wasn't nearly as gorgeous. But during the Act 2 lap-dance she performs exclusively for Don Jose in unforgettable vocalese, that doesn't matter in the least. This is one sizzling performance, and it's hard to imagine Denyce Graves cavorting so lustily.

Vocally, the truly great news is tenor Carl Tanner's Op Carolina debut as Don Jose. While Tanner isn't as convincing as superstar Roberto Alagna in the mommy's boy corner of Jose's character in the early acts, he actually eclipses the Frenchman when Jose grows jealous of Escamillo, the toreador, and fiercely challenges him. And his heartfelt agony when Carmen dies is the most gut-wrenching I have ever heard. This news is doubly great because, in May, Tanner returns to star in Otello!

Even in the lesser roles, where the Met production should pull far ahead on depth and budget, Op Carolina holds its own. While baritone Kristopher Irmiter isn't nearly as commanding as Escamillo as he was in Op Carolina's Don Giovanni in 2008 -- or as lusty as understudy Teddy Tahu Rhodes was singing "The Toreador Song" in the Met broadcast -- Anne-Carolyn Bird as lovelorn Micaëla trounces the Met's Barbara Frittoli as soundly as Rhodes bests Irmiter. The pitiful messenger from Jose's mom grew so strong in resolve for her Act 3 aria, "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante," that her curtain call became the signal for the opening night Belk Theater crowd to rise in a standing ovation for the production. Deservedly so.

There's an intriguing parallel between the Carmencita at the Belk and the one directed by Richard Eyre at Lincoln Center. When the renegade cigarette girl died outside the bull ring at the Met, the whole set turned extravagantly around and revealed the great Escamillo standing in triumph over the dead bull. Op Carolina director Bernard Uzan stages the entire opera inside a bullring with the company chorus looming above them like bullfight spectators for most of the evening. The connection between Carmen and the bull is drawn even more starkly -- at the very beginning while the orchestra is playing Bizet's fate theme. In an imaginative flash-forward, Carmen is flanked by the two men who adore her, Jose and Escamillo, who drag her off the stage like a butchered corpse, her arms outstretched and tied to a wooden sledge.

Have the two lovers somehow crucified Carmen, or is this bloody image a manifestation of the lovely spitfire's death wish? The question hovers over Uzan's vision until he delivers his answer in Act 4.

Uzan isn't infallible implementing his single-set concept. At the climax of Carmen's gypsy song, opening Act 2 at Lillas Pastia's tavern, the chorus gallery grows so loud at the riotous climax that they drown out the orchestra. And Uzan is a little too busy in bringing down a scrim to hide the scenery for assorted effects. It's very fine indeed as the brigands approach their mountain retreat at the outset of Act 3 and lights move along across the blackened stage, passed from chorister to chorister, diffused by the scrim into a moody nocturnal glow. But Uzan also brings the scrim down between Jose and Carmen as the disgraced corporal sings his importunate "Flower Song." Somehow Uzan has gotten it into his head that dramatizing how Jose remembered her in prison months ago is more important than the desperate, pleading drama that is happening now. Amazingly wrongheaded.

Such gaffes are forgiven if not forgotten when we reach Uzan's provocative, deeply satisfying staging of the denouement. There is one other sector where the Belk Theater spectacle soundly trounced the show at the Regal Stonecrest: the box office. It was hard to detect an empty seat last Saturday night at the Belk, even in the topmost balcony -- more people lapping up Carmencita's charm than at both Met videocasts combined. You see, there is Live in HD and there is live. As soon as Chavez lifts up her skirts and straddles a gaping, panting, lusting dragoon, you'll appreciate the difference.

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