Back in the bleakest days of the COVID pandemic, when most of the performing arts world was plunged into darkness, the Palm Beach Opera intrepidly moved ahead with its 2020–21 season. Reimagined in an outdoor festival format, it drew international attention and top-flight soloists whose original schedules had evaporated. Now celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, the company has returned to its normal home at the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.
Like everything else in the free state of Florida, the performing arts are booming. Palm Beach’s opera, symphony, and ballet companies are expanding their reach as the area rises as a hub of finance and politics. This performance on January 29 of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, a standard repertoire favorite of callow passion and narcissistic defiance, has solidified Palm Beach’s standing among the nation’s best regional opera companies.
While Carmen may not have been the most daring choice for a new season, it did draw eager audiences and world-class soloists. The size of the audience alone invited comparison with our larger cultural capitals. The performance I attended was nearly sold out, just days after The New York Times reported that some of the January 2022 performances by the Metropolitan Opera of similarly standard repertoire only reached 44 percent capacity. Several factors could have contributed to this, but one likely culprit is the Met’s requirement that all spectators be vaccinated and boosted, a rule that is unlawful in Florida. (Per Kravis Center policy, one can present a negative test result in lieu of a vaccine card showing two doses, while children under twelve face neither testing nor vaccination requirements.) Significant segments of the Met’s pre-pandemic audience, however, are no longer New Yorkers, and an important subset of those who fled Gotham became permanent Palm Beachers. In case anyone forgot, during the opera’s fortune-telling scene peals of laughter greeted the prediction that one of Carmen’s friends will marry a rich old man who will soon die and leave her everything. I doubt that the scene would cause so much mirth at the Met.
The role of Carmen for this run was played by two of the most brilliant mezzo-sopranos in the musical firmament, both of whom have sung for the Met. J’Nai Bridges, whom I last heard in Washington as Saint-Saëns’s Dalila just days before the pandemic, shared the role with the alluring Tunisian-born Canadian soprano Rihab Chaieb, who starred the night I attended. Chaieb delivered a playful but charismatic reading, endowed with a cunning sense of self-awareness, which in other performances too often gets lost in the intensity of the drama. We love villains, and when they include us in their psyche, we are indulged in whatever fix they are plotting. Ever the sly temptress, Chaieb resisted the modish temptation to fashion her character into a strident feminist avatar who prizes her liberté over the havoc she has wreaked. However tragic the consequences, her coquettish mien wins us over.
The role of Don José, Carmen’s suitor and murderer, fell to the talented young tenor Dominick Chenes. He has room to grow but projected a fine lyricism, especially in his character’s desperate pleading with Carmen to return in the third act. Reminding us how deadly the passions can be, he makes his swift transformation into a thoroughly believable killer. Don José’s ignored love interest, Micaëla, was sung lovingly by the faultless Amanda Woodbury, whose creamy middle register radiated sincerity. The baritone Zachary Nelson joined the cast as a replacement for the singer originally slated to sing Escamillo, the bullfighter whose bravado lures Carmen’s affections away from the weak Don José. Possessing a fine legato and elegant manner, he was a welcome addition to a fine cast. In the supporting roles, Christopher Humbert Jr. stood out in the part of Don José’s commanding officer Zuniga, while Avery Boettcher and Megan Callahan performed admirably as Frasquita and Mercédès, Carmen’s vivacious barroom pals.
R. Keith Brumley’s serviceably traditional sets did not offer a significant comment on the meaning of the opera. Antonello Allemandi, another Met veteran conductor not unknown in these parts, led an energetic performance.