If ever there was a perfect "first opera," it's "Carmen." Bizet's tuneful score churns out operatic greatest hit after greatest hit, the characters are vivid and complex, and its Spanish milieu of gypsy encampments and bullfighting pageantry provides exotic splashes of local color.
No wonder "Carmen" was the Connecticut Lyric Opera's first-ever production a decade ago, and no wonder it is the company's first reprise, taking the stage Saturday evening at the Garde Arts Center in New London after a series of performances in New Britain, Waterbury and Middletown.
This tale of the headstrong and independent gypsy girl of the title - the first liberated woman of opera - is also an ideal first-opera for those intrigued with the appeal of opera and the growth of the art form in eastern Connecticut. If you think opera may seem foreign, just wait until the dashing toreador Escamillo makes his entrance singing, "Toreador, en garde ..." You know the tune, you'll hum along, and you'll realize why "Carmen" is so much a part of our mass culture.
The CLO production brings back three-quarters of the leads from last season's successful production of Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte." In the title role will be Polish mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Kaminska. In the role of the love-struck and conflicted army corporal Don Jose, the traditionalist who falls for a rebel, will be tenor Daniel Juárez. And playing Micaela, the girl from home who is Don Jose's conscience, is the CLO's resident diva, soprano Jurate Švedaite.
One of the strengths of the CLO has been its fine orchestra, the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, and its music director, Adrian Sylveen. Sylveen will not only conduct, but he is also the stage director of the production.
It all tends to get a little multicultural - an opera set in Spain and sung in French, with English supertitles projected above the stage - but the emotional heft of "Carmen" matches its melodic outpouring and communicates clearly.
This 1875 opera runs the gamut from carefree ensembles of gypsy girls, to tender love arias, to guilt and remorse leading to the riveting final scene: As the excited sounds of the bull ring echo, Don Jose confronts a defiant Carmen. While the crowd anticipates the bull's fate, it is Carmen who falls to the blade.
The music, like the plot and the characters, is both direct and nuanced, and audiences walk out humming. No wonder "Carmen" retains its "first opera" allure.
"Carmen," presented by the Connecticut Lyric Opera, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; $32-$60; (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org.