Friday night, Dallas Opera continued a decades-long tradition of introducing major international talent to America when French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine, just a few days short of her thirtieth birthday, stepped onto the stage at Winspear Opera House for the title role in Bizet’s Carmen.
The sheer force of Margaine’s voice impresses when she turns up the volume. She possesses, at the same time, the magical ability to project a pianissimo above the orchestra. She delivers all of this with a beauty of tone that holds up throughout her range.
Margaine likewise infuses her rendition of Carmen with high-heat eroticism, from her constantly surprising interaction with the other performers—yes, even in this most familiar of all operas—to her intriguing caressing of French consonants. There have been many great Carmens of many different nationalities through the years, but Margaine brings a French linguistic and cultural insight that adds unique breadth to the role.
American soprano Mary Dunleavy proved a worthy colleague in the production as Micaela, utilizing a voice that manages to be both powerful and sweet to bring a sense of resolve to a character that can dissolve too easily into spinelessness.
Soprano Danielle Pastin and mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock as Carmen’s companions Frasquita and Mercedes likewise provided voices that could hold their own on the same stage as Margaine. Baritone Steven Labrie as Le Dancaire and tenor William Ferguson as Remendado formed an engaging duo of smugglers and managed to pull the spotlight onto those two characters as well.
However, neither of the singers performing the roles of Carmen’s principal competing lovers—tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Don Jose and baritone Dwayne Croft as Escamillo—came up to the standard set by Margaine as Carmen. Croft, reportedly ailing, displayed signs of vocal strain throughout his performance, and Jovanovich, while powerful in the final scene, failed to find any finer shadings of volume. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume, the company’s newly appointed music director, made an impressive first appearance in that capacity, bringing, like Margaine, a compellingly French sensibility to this greatest of French romantic operas.
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s sets, originally created for San Francisco Opera in 1981, are puzzlingly shallow and contradict the sense of space inherent in Carmen; however, director Chris Alexander supplied some unique staging concepts and a convincing depiction of a degraded, violent populace surrounding Carmen’s machinations. Ultimately, however, this production is a showcase for two great singers, and it’s the performances by Margaine and Dunleavy that make this a Carmen worth seeing and hearing.
Photo: © Karen Almond, Dallas Opera