RALEIGH — Bizet's "Carmen" is a daunting challenge for the largest companies, so it may have seemed foolish for still-young Capital Opera to take such a risk. But the level of orchestral and vocal excellence heard at Friday's opening performance signaled an encouraging maturation for a company just beginning its sixth season.
Most impressive was the confidence in the pit. Wayne Wyman led his 25-piece orchestra through the moods and colors of this gorgeous score with knowledgeable Gallic style. Despite some too-slow tempos, especially in Act 1, and occasional ragged entrances, Wyman repeatedly seduced the listener with sensuous nuance.
Casting was admirable for its consistency and appropriateness. Cheryse McLeod Lewis had the looks and presence for a believable Carmen, playing her not as fiery hellcat but as bored, aloof shark. Her pleasing mezzo rang out in the high notes and had impact in the dramatic moments, although more lyrical phrases gave her some trouble in firm tone and true pitch.
As her hapless lover Don Jose, tenor Timothy Sparks supplied generous amounts of sweet, warm phrasing as well as enough emotional intensity to flesh out a somewhat generalized characterization.
The two other leads were so strong that the production could have been titled "Michaela" or "Escamillo." As the former, Anna Kirby lit up the stage with her bright, metallic soprano, pouring out beautiful passages in her duet with sweetheart Don Jose and stopping the show with her emotional third-act prayer. As the latter, Steven Jepson portrayed the toreador's preening self-confidence to perfection, capped by a smooth baritone that easily handled all the bravura singing required.
Secondary casting did not disappoint. Allison Kokkeler's high-flying Frasquita and Jennifer Gaspar's smoky Mercedes made a colorful pair of cut-ups, while Jesse Darden's cocky Dancaro and John Cashwell's sly Remendado added comic relief. Kevin Badanes deserves credit for a well-rehearsed chorus.
Visually, the production was bare-boned. Thomas Mauney's unit set of plywood forms seemed unnecessarily Spartan, although he made clever use of hanging cloths, most effective in Act 3's mountain hideout, where his lighting added palpable atmosphere.
Mauney's stage direction leaned toward the static, acceptable for the main characters' intimate interactions, ineffective in the crowd scenes, especially the lethargic Act 1. Ruth Bryan's costumes were satisfactory for the leads, less so for the chorus.
While technical elements are part of the equation in opera presentation, they should never be the main focus. This production's solid musical values made it easy to forgive any staging quibbles.