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A 'Carmen' to make you fall in love again

Sarasota Opera's opening night of the Bizet crowd-pleaser exceeded expectations.

Chelsea Laggan (center) stars as a carefree gypsy caught in a tragic love triangle between a bullfighter (Andrew Manea, left) and a guard (Victor Starsky) in Sarasota Opera's production of "Carmen."
Chelsea Laggan (center) stars as a carefree gypsy caught in a tragic love triangle between a bullfighter (Andrew Manea, left) and a guard (Victor Starsky) in Sarasota Opera's production of "Carmen."
Image courtesy of Rod Millington
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George Bizet’s "Carmen" is arguably one of the best and most popular operas of all time. While even a mediocre performance could please an audience, the Sarasota Opera’s opening night of "Carmen" easily exceeded expectations. 

With stellar actors in the principal roles, a dazzling orchestra with an even more dazzling score, a robust chorus, realistic sets and the vision of both stage director Martha Collins and conductor Victor DeRenzi, this is a "Carmen" that will tear at your heart in the best way.

Chelsea Laggan, a beauty in body and voice, doesn’t reveal her truly heartless character in the famous "Habanera," ("L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" or "Love is a rebellious bird"), which introduces her as the boldest of the cigar ladies. 

In Laggan’s version, she taunts and flirts, but the real danger of this woman is muted. While other mezzos might choose to reveal a fuller spectrum of cruelty in this aria with a throatier, lusty style, one could wonder if Laggan’s reserve added to the thrill and shock when Carmen later shows her utter contempt for men, especially poor Don José.

Ordinarily, Carmen, the heartless gypsy hogs the limelight, but this Sarasota Opera production effectively flips the focus to the doomed soldier Don José. Making his debut in Sarasota, tenor Victor Starsky portrays the unraveling of a simple man caught between the wholesome love of his mother, his hometown sweetheart Micaela and the tawdry allure of the ultimate loose woman.

We suspect it is José's pure heart that does him in. He sings poignantly of an idealized love, not the reality of Carmen, in the Flower song (“La fleur que tu m'avais jetée” or "The flower you threw at me"). 

While possessing a voice that flexes with nuance, the genius of Starsky’s stage performance is how he shares each tiny tear in his moral fabric as he follows and succumbs to Carmen despite every effort to cling to what he knows is moral and right. Watching his slow crumbling into unhinged desperation is unforgettable.

His story begins with a picture of innocence in his first meeting with Micaela (soprano Sarah Tucker) in Act I. “Parle-moi de ma mère” ("Speak to me of my mother") is a sweet duet in which there is shared affection, but no meaningful sense of connection. Tucker’s lovely voice and presence here lays a foundation for her far more fervent and anguished return in Act III, when she struggles to save Don José’s soul. 

Carmen, however, seduces a string of men, not just Don José. Last season’s Don Giovanni, bass-baritone David Weigel, returns as a commanding Lieutenant Zuniga, who cynically would send Carmen to jail as easily as make love to her. Yet he jealously fights with Don José over her attentions. 

Neither can compete with the bullfighter Escamillo, especially with some of the best of Bizet’s score marshaled in his favor. Baritone Andrew Manea works on the necessary flair of a lauded hero in both the Toreador’s song and the Act IV Quadrille of the Bullfighters. 

In both of these appearances, Escamillo is surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd displaying the potential of a full opera chorus. Sarasota Opera’s chorus was at times diverting and colorful, made more so by detailed stage direction, and shockingly powerful at full volume. 

Even the supporting roles of smugglers and gypsy women were superbly filled by strong singers. One of the first soldiers we meet is Heeseun Chae’s Corporal Moralès. Jake Stamatis and Nathaniel Catasca acquitted themselves well as Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado plotting with Carmen. And flanked by Bryn Holdsworth and SarahAnn Duffy, Laggan’s Carmen was ably supported by the harmonies and vacuous musings of friends Frasquita and Mercédès.

Sarasota Opera productions are reliably effective, thanks to a deep bench of excellent theater professionals who work together exceptionally well. Stage director Martha Collins and DeRenzi have collaborated for many successful seasons and productions.

The same can be said of the duo of costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan and lighting designer Ken Yunker. Hair and makeup designer Kellen Eason rounded out this winning team.

The infinitely memorable score, Bizet’s finest, was brought to full life by an orchestra of masterful musicians. DeRenzi seems to attract the best talent and leads them with an experienced hand.

Even if it is the 50th Carmen you’ve seen, the distilled drama of this Sarasota Opera production will get to you in the end.



Gayle Williams

Gayle Williams is a graduate of Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music in Ohio. She was the principal flute of the Venice Symphony for 17 seasons and has performed with the Florida West Coast Symphony, Sarasota Pops and Cleveland German Orchestra. Williams has been writing concert reviews since 2001, most recently at the Herald Tribune Media Group, from 2002-2023.

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