French mezzo Clémentine Margaine bolted on stage at the Winspear opera house this weekend and stole the audience's attention with effortless sensuality and a strong, smooth voice. Making her American debut in The Dallas Opera's season-opening production of Bizet's Carmen, Margaine also brought depth and complexity to the classic title role.
Seduction is mostly about demanding attention; the guy she wants, the guy she doesn't want, jealous girlfriends and hapless competitors -- a successful seductress can grab all of their gazes and hold them with magnetic pull. For the duration of the TDO's nearly four-hour production of Carmen, Margaine's magnetism never wavered. Everyone on stage wanted her or wanted to be her, and the audience did, too.
Margaine's voice was certainly part of the appeal -- consistently powerful and capable of big sound, she maintained a warmth of tone in both high and low ranges. She also made you believe what she was singing. Carmen can come off as flighty; she falls in and out of love over the course of an aria. But rather than playing her as simply manipulative or capricious, Margaine sold Carmen's side of the story. She did want that guy, until she didn't. She was disillusioned, misunderstood. Ultimately, she just wanted the freedom to love and to leave, to be certain and then change her mind. And it is her free spirit, not her sensuality that is the draw.
The men in TDO's Carmen were less appealing. Brandon Jovanovich's Don José was somewhat stiff and unconvincing at the beginning of the opera. His voice was rich in tone but hardly expressive and his performance on Sunday lacked the kind of dramatic commitment Margaine brought to the stage. He did, however, unravel into insanity successfully, becoming increasingly appealing as the opera progressed and his mental state disintegrated.
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As Escamillo, the toreador for whom Carmen abandons the distraught and pathetic José, Dwayne Croft failed to illicit the kind of passion he should have brought to the stage. His voice was noticeably weaker than those of his counterparts and his acting was incredibly stiff. In a somewhat strange move for an opera house, an announcement was made before the third act on Sunday explaining that Croft had been ill. Unfortunately, this just drew more attention and scrutiny to his voice. In the future, apologies and excuses should be avoided.
TDO's production of Carmen (borrowed from the San Francisco Opera) is traditional, with hefty sets, warm lighting and vibrant period costumes. The chorus -- especially the women -- sounded strong and confident on Sunday and the children's choir performed beautifully as both singers and actors, adding some much needed movement and energy to crowd scenes. The orchestra, although not without technical blunders, was vibrant and expressive. The opera's new music director, Emmanuel Villaume, clearly has a great sense for eliciting drama not only on stage, but from the pit.
Musically, other highlights included the trio of Margaine with her female cohorts in crime (Audrey Babcock and Danielle Pastin as Mercédès and Frasquita respectively). Babcock and Pastin not only held their own in scenes with the mezzo star, but added to the beauty with stunning vocals that resulted in a sumptuous blend of sound. As the pitiful Micaela, who loses her lover to Carmen's grasp, Mary Dunleavy also sang with impressive technique. Her quivering vibrato and control in quiet moments was breathtaking, but she didn't necessarily seem suited to the wallflower roll, belting out a little too much power at times.
Ultimately, this is familiar and beloved music. You'll recognize most of it instantly even if you never listen to classical music or opera. And because of Margaine's captivating skills as an actress and vocalist, you'll quickly find yourself seduced by her siren's song.