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Audrey Babcock’s “industrial sound” wasn’t the only thing weird about this Carmen.

After the Fort Worth Opera’s board of directors angered classical music fans in February by firing general director Darren Woods (“Aria for Woods,” Feb. 2), some attendees may have gone into Saturday night’s spring season premiere of Carmen feeling dissilusioned. In fact, many audience members felt inclined to mutter about it while Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra conductor Joe Illick gave his introductory speech before the overture. Reminding everyone of the “recent changes” in the company’s ranks, Illick perfectly primed Wood supporters for the three hours of melodrama and backstabbing that is Bizet’s Carmen, the story of a gypsy factory worker (Audrey Babcock) whose hobbies include smoking, exhibitionism, and provoking people into stabbing one another. After one particularly nasty scuffle with another factory worker, she seduces the soldier Don José (Robert Watson) into helping her escape the law. She soon learns that this Don is not as easily manipulated as her previous lovers. 

Sometimes a performance wanders into territory that I can only describe as “industrial sounding.” This is the disappointing phenomenon in which a singer’s vibrato is so high-powered that it blends his or her notes together, creating a sound that is less noticeably agile than powerful. Over the past several years, the classical music world has begun to favor power over precision and clarity, and FWO is apparently no exception.

Babcock’s Carmen has that same industrial sound. However, she is also perfectly personified. Carmen is vicious and fiercely independent, and Babcock portrayed her excellently. In particular, her duets with Watson – scenes in which Carmen was often furious or throwing shade every which way – were thoroughly believable. 

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Likewise, Don José was suitably portrayed. Watson’s José flew into fits of anguish and melancholy with gusto, morphing into a drunken madman by the end of the final act and inspiring viewers to reflect on how greatly the character had changed. Watson brought us a vulnerable, dynamic Don José this season – something regular operagoers might appreciate.

Audiences are advised to pay particular attention to the artistry and beautiful melodic stylings of Christina Pecce and Anna Laurenzo as Carmen’s handmaidens. In particular, Pecce’s dazzlingly clear tone and pitch were everything I was looking for from the soprano’s role as Frasquita. 

The show was noticeably less spectacular than the company’s 2009 run of this Bizet classic. Apart from a few moments in which the orchestra and artists were slightly out of synch, the greater issue was the lack of variety in set design. There was only one set, so it was difficult to realize we were being taken from a square in Seville to a tavern, then to the mountains, and then to a bullfighting arena between acts. A few rocks thrown haphazardly onstage beside a firepit do little to distract from the facades of giant, un-used, disregarded buildings. 

The most glaring problem with the evening’s performance was not one of set or vocals. Despite Babcock’s and Watson’s vocal gymnastics, audience members likely returned to their homes Saturday night with Betsy Price in mind. Fort Worth’s mayor made a cameo appearance almost randomly during the final act to take part in the procession where the bullfighter parades through the streets of Seville. FWO even had a scripted introduction from the chorus of townspeople: “Here comes our mayor!” 

Seeing a local politician waving to the thunderous applause of her constituents during a performance was strange. Not only was it unexpected, but it ruined the atmosphere of the scene. Perhaps the creatives behind the first night’s staging could have tried a little harder to make Price not appear in decidedly non-19th-century clothing?

But even if the mayor had blended into the atmosphere more appropriately, the skin-crawling feeling I got would not have gone away. Her cameo reminded me of something worrying about Fort Worth’s political environment. Locals’ perception of this civil servant as a celebrity is discomforting. 

That feeling was magnified when I remembered there’s a general election in Fort Worth on Saturday, May 6, for new city councilmembers – and for mayor. 

Surely this couldn’t have been a power move, right? No, it was probably only a coincidence that a major Fort Worth artistic institution afforded the stage to the city’s premier political figure two weeks before audience members and the rest of town are to decide whether or not to reinstate her.

Say whatever you like about the new, post-Woods era, at least the Fort Worth Opera’s not political. Right?

Editor’s note: In a previous version of this story and in print, the writer misidentified Darren Woods’ former position with the company and the actor in the role of Frasquita. We regret the errors.

Carmen

2pm Sun, Apr 30, and 7:30pm Fri, May 5, at Bass Performance Hall, 525 Commerce St, FW. $17-195. 817-396-7372. 

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