What better work to inaugurate Opera Charleston, the Holy City’s newest arts institution, than Georges Bizet’s Carmen? It’s been one of the opera world’s consistent smash hits ever since its 1875 premiere, and for good reason. It offers a gripping story, colorful characters, and the most consistently gorgeous, memorable music of any opera you can name. And a sellout crowd enjoyed the heck out of it Friday evening at the Memminger Auditorium.

Let’s face it: Opera Charleston — barring mega infusions of cash — will never be able to compete toe-to-toe with the big, major-metro houses, especially in terms of big, lavishly staged productions and all-star casts. So it’s fortunate that Charleston has an infinitely flexible venue like the Memminger, where opera can be presented in fresh, non-traditional (and less expensive) ways.

As Spoleto opera production teams have discovered, their own imaginations are just about the only limits to this building’s possible performance and seating space configurations. I’ve seen four other opera productions there over the years, and no two layouts were even remotely similar. This production’s performance space arrangement sported what you could call “theater in the square,” with a rather narrow expanse of stage in front connected to even narrower runways to the sides and rear. This rectangular configuration framed a large central space occupied by the orchestra and chorus. The bulk of the audience was seated to the front of the stage, with small sets of bleachers to either side.

As with most such “improvised” configurations, there were both advantages and drawbacks. The narrow front stage’s limited space made it impossible to use lavish (and costly) sets or props, and there was no room for interaction with the chorus, which delivered its rousing singing from bleachers behind the orchestra. The only props were a few nondescript furniture items and plain wooden boxes. The orchestra and conductor were plainly visible just behind the stage; something of a distraction, until you got used to it.

The production compensated somewhat for the spare staging with three large screens mounted on the rear wall, streaming real-time video of the stage action along with actual footage and photos from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, the production’s scenario. But the video came from a two-man camera-crew that glided back and forth on rails running just in front of the stage — a definite distraction, especially for rubbernecking audience members who (like me) were seated in the first few rows. All this combined to give the vague impression of a semi-staged concert production, or “opera-lite,” as I’ve called similar efforts before.

But in opera, the music’s the main thing, and that’s where this production shone most brightly. The musical foundations were all in excellent order: the out-in-the- open Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was in terrific form, and their sound was crisper and clearer than you’d normally hear from a “pit band.” Robert Taylor’s somewhat condensed CSO Chorus was in excellent collective voice, and sang with accuracy and spirit. Act I’s “ragazzi” chorus of local boys (and a few girls) playing at being soldiers did very well.

Maestro Louis Salemno’s authoritative baton held these musical forces together beautifully. He surprised us here and there with particularly brisk tempos that often added fresh drama and spice to the mostly very familiar music. And, ah, the soloists! While there were no really big names (save one) among them, there was nary a dud in the bunch. Collectively, they were easily on a par with the “up-and-coming” casts that grace many Spoleto productions. Soprano Saundra DeAthos melted hearts with her portrayal of Micaëla; her silvery, emotionally naked singing made me cry in her lovely act III aria. As the toreador Escamillo, Malcolm Mackenzie blended serious acting skills with his rich, rolling baritone, making for a convincing portrayal with just the right touch of ego-laden swagger. Talk about acting: tenor Harold Meers sang the role of jilted lover Don José to pearly-toned perfection, his slow buildup of seething rage reminding the audience what crimes of passion are all about.

Even the lesser roles got better singers than many good productions offer. Bass Bradley Smoak was excellent as the macho soldiers’ captain Zuniga, as was Nathan Matticks as officer Moralès. The Gypsy girls Frasquita (Sarah Hibbard) and Mercédès (Jennifer Berkebile) were even better than they needed to be, as were Michael Boley and Brandon Hendrickson as the smugglers.

But it was clear who the star of the show was. Living operatic legend Denyce Graves, in the title role, gave of her very best. Her creamy, seductive mezzo voice flowed smoothly, like molten gold, filling the entire theater with some of the most opulent, shiver-your-timbers vocal sound to be heard anywhere on earth. She positively dripped wanton, “bad-girl” sex appeal, leaving no doubt in anybody’s mind why Carmen could drive any man to a life of crime.

Vocal flaws were few and far between; most notably, there were a few disconnects between orchestra and singers (like in the fast “patter-singing“ ensemble in act II). But then, remember, the singers were in front of the orchestra for a change, and they couldn’t see the conductor. All else, like lighting, costumes and stage direction, was in reasonable order. And, by golly, the whole thing worked.

In the final scene, Carmen and José sang and acted up a storm, sweeping their lucky audience up into the utter magic of opera done well. The uninitiated often wonder about the appeal of people singing at the top of their lungs as they act out contrived plots with overblown emotions. Well, great music is what makes it all tick, and Friday’s performance would’ve made believers of them all. And, despite the economy-minded aspects of the production, it bodes very well for the future of Opera Charleston. Bravo, tutti. I hope you’ve already got your ticket for Sunday’s matinee performance,  ‘cause it’s sold out, too.

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