There's an old adage in sports that great players don't necessarily make great coaches. Leading a team is a gift all its own.

But after seeing Minnesota Opera's "Carmen," I can assure you that star soprano Denyce Graves has that gift.

When Graves was enlisted to direct the Georges Bizet opera — three decades after singing the title role in a Minnesota Opera staging that launched her to stardom — it could have seemed a stunt hire. After all, she'd never directed a professional production. Surely there would be rookie mistakes.

If there were, I didn't catch them. It's the most creative, colorful and meticulously crafted "Carmen" among the several I've experienced. Bursting with imagination, it's full of supremely strong singing, deeply involving portrayals, terrific dance interludes and an Elias Grandy-led orchestra that makes familiar tunes sound fresh again.

So how has a woman who's sung Carmen at most of the world's great opera houses so successfully made the leap to directing? Well, she's probably harvested some of the best staging ideas from those many renditions, but each member of a cast of 70 seemed to have crafted a complex character. The acting was deeply engaged, and not just among the 10 most prominent singing roles. Everyone behaved as if they had a story to tell.

As for the story of Carmen and the soldier she seduces, Don Jose, it's delivered with layers of meaning missing from most productions. As portrayed by Maya Lahyani and Won Whi Choi, they're palpably passionate people on a collision course between worldliness and naivete, rebellion and convention. Each aria and duet was sung with power, clarity and subtlety.

(On May 14 and 22, the roles of Carmen and Don Jose will be sung by Zoie Reams and Rafael Moras.)

Underlining the urban vs. rural clash that sets an innocent Don Jose against Carmen's crew of street-smart smugglers, Symone Harcum's Micaela may represent unspoiled purity, but she does so with warmth, accessibility and a sweet soprano voice that makes her lamentations truly touching. In contrast to her humility is the larger-than-life swagger of the matador, Escamillo, sung with magnetic confidence by Aaron Keeney. With the aid of an adoring crowd, the "Toreador" aria becomes the fun showstopper it deserves to be.

But that scene is just one of many marvelously choreographed sequences benefiting from the dance-driven vision of Eric Sean Fogel. Few instrumental interludes in this production aren't accompanied by some visually splendid movement that drives the story forward, sometimes while an element of Riccardo Hernandez's awe-inspiring set is sliding into place. And having flamenco guitarist Daniel Volovets aid the segues by improvising on some of the opera's themes is a wonderful touch.

A key element in this staging is the distinct identity of the Roma people to whom Carmen belongs. It clearly enriches the vivid characterizations. The chorus is excellent throughout, and I suspect Graves helped each member feel that they had something important to contribute. Just as a good coach should.

Who: Music by Georges Bizet, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Conducted by Elias Grandy, stage direction by Denyce Graves.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sun., 7:30 p.m. May 19 and 21, 2 p.m. May 22.
Where: Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $25-$258, 612-333-6669 or

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities freelance classical music writer.