Opera Colorado could not have made better choices than in opening the new Ellie Caulkins Opera House with Denyce Graves starring as Carmen. Not only did they choose an immensely popular piece, but the renowned and talented Ms. Graves is a draw unto herself.

The choices have been successful at every turn, with the schedule of eight performances (far more than the company has every produced) all nearly sold out or significantly filled.

Photo of Denyce Graves as Carmen
Denyce Graves as Carmen
Photo credit: P. Switzer
Though her voice was not at its world-class best on opening night, yet still superb, Graves showed why she is considered the ultimate Carmen, a free-spirited, intelligent, and oh-so-sexy seductress. This is a woman who knows that her charms are irresistible, and who seizes every opportunity to use them. The audience favorite this evening was clearly the moment when she takes a razor out of the hand of a primping soldier and, after playfully menacing his neck, uses it to shave her inner thigh. But her sponge bath to the haunting Habañera ("Love is like any wood-bird wild...") comes a close second.

Delightfully, stage director James Robinson chose the original version of the score, with spoken dialogue—rather than Ernest Guiraud's sung recitatives—that reveals Carmen's irony and sense of humor. Graves takes full advantage of this as well, showing us that she is an accomplished actress as well as a phenomenal singer.

Photo of Julian Gavin as Don Jose and Denyce Graves as Carmen
Julian Gavin as Don Jose
and Denyce Graves as Carmen
Photo credit: P. Switzer
And though Robinson also makes a number of inconsequential and even distracting staging choices—turning the mountain hideaway in Act III into a burned-out theatre and framing the final scene with a gratuitous curtain as if turning this confrontation into "a play within a play" and ritualizing Don José's rage somehow elevates the murder, like a bullfight supposedly dignifies cruelty—the fine voices and pleasing melodies of Bizet, performed with aplomb by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Stephen Lord, override these pretensions.

Photo of Pamela Armstrong as Micaela
Pamela Armstrong as Micäela
Photo credit: P. Switzer
In addition to Graves' powerful performance, Pamela Armstrong's Micäela is sweet and true, giving teeth, however fleeting, to the conventional hope that Don José will come to his senses and honor his mother's wishes by marrying this soulful girl. In a charming duet, Julian Gavin, with a pleasing and perfectly in character mild tenor, paints Don José as a noble, if small town, romantic.

Photo of David Pittsinger as Escamillo
David Pittsinger as Escamillo
Photo credit: P. Switzer
Immediately Don José's reverie is broken by a commotion in the tobacco factory, and no sooner is he caught in Carmen's web (allowing her to escape) than Escamillo enters the picture. Every inch the brave and dashing bullfighter, and with a strong bass-baritone to match, David Pittsinger's Toreador Song quickly enables Escamillo to turn the tables on Carmen, who, despite her professed love for Don José, cannot take her eyes off this new suitor.

The other shining star of the evening was The Ellie—the opera house itself—which seemed to come to life, breathing as the singers themselves warmed up, and providing a warm mix of orchestra and voice, with very few dead spots.

When the opera was first performed, Carmen was seen by many as a loose woman, and indeed, despite gains in the last century, such double standards still prevail in post-industrial society. But as Robinson's direction and Graves' performance make clear, Carmen's philosophy is not confined by sex or social mores: she carries a notion of freedom that few can live up to—to love without chains.

Opera Colorado's production of Georges Bizet's Carmen has four remaining performances, November 8th, 11th, 12th (Beth Clayton, Maddalena in last year's Rigoletto, sings Carmen this evening), and 13th. 303-893-4100 or

Bob Bows


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