Simulcast director Bruce Bryant wouldn't have been surprised to hear this. Stationed inside a truck parked in front of the Academy of Music with monitors representing each camera, Bryant marveled at how good all the singers looked on screen. "The camera loves all of them," he said. That's unusual in a world known for vertically challenged tenors and late-middle-aged sopranos playing teenager.
What the Academy of Music audience - warm and dry but close-up-deprived - might have missed: When dressed up for a bullfight in the final act, Rinat Shaham (Carmen) became a Penélope Cruz look-alike. Ailyn Perez, playing the good girl Micaela, sang her Act 3 aria as a deeply private prayer, and with the physical subtleties of someone acquainted with how these things work in the world of Roman Catholicism.
Part of the Independence Mall appeal was the price: There wasn't one. A pair of Drexel University physical therapy students with limited exposure to opera found out about the event on the university's website and gave it a try. A Chinese family of five made the trip from Warrington, having been to the Metropolitan Opera movie-theater simulcasts. The main instigators were the teenage daughters, who seem to think of Carmen as in the same genre as Wicked.
Longtime Opera Company subscribers expressed relief that the David Gately-directed production had none of the high-concept missteps of the company's last Carmen, in 2002. When the curtain rose on a traditional representation of Old Europe Seville, one patron whispered to another, "It's better already!"
The Allen Charles Klein set resembled the view from a Seville side street with all kinds of angular buildings that border on a bull ring with the name of the star bullfighter, Escamillo, written everywhere. In the final act, the set even took on cinematic veracity on the simulcast screen; at times, it could have been shot on location.
Overall, the superbly plotted opera about a Gypsy seducing the mentally unstable soldier Don Jose pressed all the right buttons. Subsidiary characters were strongly drawn, though crowd scenes had momentary clumsiness. The simulcast's sound system gave the voices a strident edge, but the often-iffy opera orchestra was in polished form under Corrado Rovaris.
Few casts have so many strengths. Vocally, it was all good. As Carmen, Shaham projects plenty of raw sex, but also a cat-and-mouse wit that gives the character an extra level, besides having the kind of true, deep mezzo-soprano voice that brings to the role a lower-range gravity unheard since Marilyn Horne.
One touch I loved: Instead of playing castinets while dancing for Don Jose, she broke a plate and used the pieces as a makeshift rhythm instrument. David Pomeroy's Don Jose had a new-car smell: The voice was fresh and unlabored, with a particularly gratifying bloom in the upper range. Details were lacking, however, along with the character's irrational desperation. None of Escamillo's vocal challenges were apparent in the excellent singing of Jonathan Beyer, even if his stage charisma didn't begin to match Shaham's.
The best performance came from Perez in the secondary role of Don Jose's possible fiancée Micaela. Thanks to her innate stage allure, Perez's Micaela was among the few I've seen that pose serious competition for Carmen. Often, Micaela represents middle-class boredom; with her dusky soprano and way of listening intently to what characters around her are saying, Perez became the voice of sanity.
Perez has often been theatrically radiant and vocally captivating since arriving here as an Academy of Vocal Arts student. But on Friday, singer and character merged with seamless simplicity. Opera buffs live for such moments. The rain didn't stop when she sang, but seemed to.
Music: Georges Bizet. Libretto: Henri Meihac and Ludovic Halevy. Directed by David Gately, designed by Allen Charles Klein.
Carmen. . . Rinat Shaham
Don Jose. . . David Pomeroy
Escamillo. . . Jonathan Beyer
Micaela. . . Ailyn Perez
Morales. . . Eric Dubin
Opera Company of Philadelphia Chorus and Orchestra, Corrado Rovaris conducting. Performances: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Friday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $8-$225. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.operaphila.org.
A brief strike last weekend by IATSE Local 8 - which represents stagehands, box office and wardrobe workers, and ushers - was suspended until Monday. Depending on what happens during renewed talks then, the Oct. 14 performance might be jeopardized. Look for updates at operaphila.org.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com