'Carmen' favorites have lead role in Zeitouni's finale

This weekend's Carmen in Concert programs mark the last for Columbus Symphony Orchestra Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni on the CSO podium (setting aside the fact he's been invited back to guest-conduct next season).

Zeitouni told The Beat the time for melancholy has passed, what with there having been a formal ceremony/celebration of his tenure as music director at his previous concert in April. So, he went on to say, these Carmen concerts are "a way to finish in something more like a party. Except that Carmen still dies."

The CSO is presenting this semi-staged, concert version of Bizet's classic opera about a passionate and flamboyant Spanish gypsy with the help of soloists from Opera Columbus, as well as the Columbus Symphony Chorus and the Columbus Children's Choir.

"It's a gift for us to be able to partner with these other fine groups. The best collaborations are when it doesn't make sense not to," Zeitouni said.

"Our first thought was to put together a sort of 'best of' Carmen and we ended up with the whole opera. Nearly every single number -- arias, chorus numbers, dances -- could be featured on an opera-favorites collection."

Zeitouni said there will be props and costumes but no sets. The singers, placed on stage in front of the orchestra and thus close to the audience, will act out their roles as they sing. Storylines, along with translations, will be presented via supertitles.

"Music for opera is some of the best music ever written," said Zeitouni, who considers himself an opera conductor first and foremost.

"There's a little bit of a compromise when you take so much of the staging out of a production, but by doing a concert opera, you allow everybody to fully concentrate on the music."

Toreador Song and Habanera are just the beginning of the "opera's great hits" offerings from Carmen. Its exotic rhythms, Spanish flavor and dance melodies appealed not only to the Bizet's original French audiences but throughout Europe and then beyond -- indeed, Carmen remains popular 135 years after its premiere.

The music's staying power is due not only to its melodic ease, but also to the immediately identifiable mood Bizet creates with each song, Zeitouni said, thus also explaining the continued popularity of music from this opera in advertising and other areas of popular culture.

In the end, though, Carmen is not simply a collection of songs, but a well-conceived narrative that Zeitouni likened to "a great Broadway production."