Georges Bizet, Carmen (1875)
Based on: a novella by Prosper Mérimée
Notable Cultural Reference: The Bad News Bears
Setting: Seville, ca. 1820
Plot in 101 words or less: Carmen works hard for the money in a cigarette factory. When she cuts a bitch during a fight, head dragoon Zuniga orders minion Don José to arrest her. Carmen uses her wily ways to free herself and José pays the piper with a month’s detention. In the meantime, sexy matador Escamillo comes to town. Oh, and there are smugglers, because why not? After all, José has to flee with someone after fighting Zuniga. Stupid. These life choices eventually bore Carmen, who runs off with Escamillo. Naturally, José then stalks and stabs Carmen during a bullfight. But he’s very sad about it.
Of course, La Maratonista and I have already seen Carmen at the San Francisco Opera, but we were rather looking forward to this new production, staged by enfant terrible (and radical re-interpreter) Calixto Bieito. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after hearing vague grumblings about it, but, wow, what a breath of fresh air it turned out to be. I felt like I was seeing Carmen for the first time. Maybe I’ve just turned an opera corner or something but, like with Don Carlo earlier in the week, I just felt it was all so real. Or maybe this was simply a killer summer season and David Gockley is going out on a high note. It is going to be hard to distribute my Figaro awards come December because I loved all three of these summer productions.
First, the singing. This was more uneven than in Jenůfa or Don Carlo. I thought Irene Roberts, last seen as a bewitching Giulietta in Les Contes d’Hoffmann was excellent as Carmen (and I could understand her French—hooray!) and Brian Jagde, who I voted Adler Fellow of the season back in 2012 for his turn as Cavaradossi in Tosca, was a strapping Don José. (Apparently he will be Radamès in Aida this fall. I may have to look into that. It’s one of the operas that La Maratonista and I dropped from our subscription.) However, I thought Zachary Nelson was a bit of a weak link as Escamillo and Ellie Dehn’s Micaëla just didn’t seem to fit in this very earthy production (though Dehn was in fantastic voice).
Speaking of earthy, have I mentioned the nakedness? Because, damn. And, for once, it was the male body on glorious display throughout. From the opening, where a man literally runs circles around the soldiers’ camp in his underwear, to the entr’acte ritual dance of a lone, naked toreador (discreetly shadowed), this was like a Claire Denis film version of Carmen. It was no “Carmen for Families” that’s for sure.
Overall, I thought the production design was very well done. I think this may be my favorite re-setting of an opera ever. Though set in a relatively modern Ceuta, a Spanish autonomous city on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, there was more than a whiff of Castro’s Cuba, as well as an ode to the Osborne bull, the sherry advertisements one sees along the highway throughout southern Spain. The scene change involving the bull literally made us gasp. Too bad that creativity was missing from the first act, which had one of the most awkward transitions I’ve ever seen. A double shame since the young girl who danced just after the first entr’acte did a really good job but I think people didn’t quite know what was going on and whether they should applaud or what.
Otherwise, everyone’s acting was on point and the chorus crowds seemed very fluid and natural as they came and went. In particular, I felt they really conveyed the spirit of a bullfight crowd in the final act. This spirit gave added impact to the final scene, whose blocking emphasized how the action between the two leads is simply a mirror of what is happening offstage in the bullring.
After today, there is just one more performance of Carmen at the War Memorial Opera House on July 3. Today’s performance will be broadcast live at AT&T Park. Check it out.