Austin Lyric Opera’s debut in the Long Center serves Bizet’s classic in a clear, uncluttered way that satisfies

Arts Review


Dell Hall at the Long Center, through April 26

Running time: 3 hr, 20 min

On opening night, in that instant between conductor Richard Buckley raising his arms and the first downbeat of Bizet's oh-so-familiar overture, you could sense from the pit the anticipation of a Thoroughbred at the racetrack before the bell. This was a moment that Buckley and the musicians of the Austin Lyric Opera orchestra – and no doubt all the local performers still unseen behind the curtain – were so ready for: the first performance in ALO's new home at the Long Center. So when that downbeat came, the coiled-spring energy pent up through the years of planning and waiting was released in an almost euphoric rush. The music sounded splendid, not just because it was those Carmen tunes that are so much candy to our ears, and not just because the acoustics in Dell Hall make almost everything sound splendid, and not just because Buckley was drawing out the best in those musicians with the fire and precision of his baton, but because the music was being played with such purpose, a once-in-a-lifetime purpose that you won't hear in other renditions of the same score. As with the racehorse flying down the track, it said, "This is where we're meant to be."

That sentiment informed the 200 or so minutes that followed as well. While the rest of the production wasn't suffused with that initial surge of release – which could hardly be sustained for three hours – it seemed driven by something more than the usual desire to put on a good show – an energy generated by this new venue and the start of a new chapter in the company's life, perhaps. Whatever it was, it was channeled by Buckley, stage director David Gately, and chorus master Marc Erck so deftly that what could have been just another routine round with the gypsy temptress and her besotted soldier-lover pulsed with blood and heat.

Providing the latter and raising the temperature of the former rightly falls to the opera's title character, and as Carmen, Beth Clayton achieves both with an effortless sensuality. On a stage full with women in peasant blouses and skirts, she always catches your eye and holds it, not with flouncing about or any other stock gestures of the stormy gypsy school but with a striking physical presence – tall, robust, cascades of luxurious dark curls – and with a self-possession that commands attention. She doesn't have to act sexy; she simply is sexy. And whether she's singing – Clayton's mezzo boasts its own dusky allure – or just standing, this Carmen attracts like a force of nature. When William Joyner's Don José takes his first halting steps toward her, he's an iron filing in the grip of a magnet, incapable of resisting her pull.

Once he's in Carmen's presence, Joyner's straight-arrow soldier looks lost, as if he no longer knows where or who he is. Gone is the ramrod military posture, and with it the allegiance to his garrison and his fealty to Micaëla, the young woman he had pledged to marry. As the abandoned fiancée, Barbara Divis stands in striking contrast to her romantic rival: smaller in stature, demure in manner, and where Clayton's voice stays about as low as the hem of Carmen's skirt, Divis' strong soprano hovers above her head like the plea to heaven Micaëla offers in the aria "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" – a soaring moment in the production that banishes any sense of the character as bland or weak. Divis' forceful turn actually keeps alive the flame of hope that Don José might come to his senses and break free of Carmen's spell. But he cannot, of course, and upon learning that he has lost Carmen to the matador Escamillo – Luis Ledesma, aglow with manly bravado and vigor – Joyner's Don José becomes truly lost, his face a glazed mask of madness. And so we come to the death foretold in the cards read by Carmen at the opera's outset. It's what she knew was coming, what we all knew was coming.

The same may be said for ALO's production overall. This is not a Carmen for new discoveries or reconsiderations of the characters or themes. It's a Carmen that seeks to do justice to the story and the music, to give us this popular work that we know so well in such a clear, uncluttered way. Fueled by a sense of occasion and purpose, it satisfies. This is indeed where ALO is meant to be.

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Carmen, Austin Lyric Opera, Richard Buckley, Beth Clayton

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