No matter how or where Carmen is produced, or by whom directed, costumed and performed, its promise of free wheeling sex and exciting rhythmic music, has made it one of the most popular operas in the world.
It will be performed more than 500 times this year in 104 cities from Aachen to Zurich with stops before such diverse populations as the residents of Reno and Riga, Mersin and Maribor. Likely comics and schoolkids in Nizhni Novgorod where it will also appear in 20013, sing Russian jingles to the “Toreador Song”
The Los Angeles Opera too, assured itself of success by opening its current (2003-14) season with the work. The company chose to repeat a production created by Emilio Sagi for the Teatro Real of Madrid in 2002, which it had previously performed in 2004 and 2008 to enthusiastic reviews.
I, too, enjoy Carmen’s music, but have yet to see a performance that has persuaded me to love the opera.
Georges Bizet created Carmen in 1875 as a commission for the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Offered several subjects for his new work by the company, Bizet rejected them all. Despite warnings that the tale was too harsh and brutal for the Opéra-Comique’s audience, he insisted on basing his opera on Prosper Mérimée’s novella, Carmen, about a sexually free gypsy smuggler, who is murdered by her lover. Promising to accommodate the Comique’s standards, his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, a duo who specialized in light weight works, tried to clean Carmen up by decriminalizing most of her activities, and by counterbalancing her free loving ways with God fearing Micaëla (who does not appear in the Mérimée work). Unfortunately, they still had Don José kill Carmen in a jealous rage, which did not sit well with the local folks. Bizet died at age 36 thinking the work a failure.
Gypsies were hot theatrical box office in the 19th century in large part in response to an 1827 poem by Alexander Pushkin, titled The Gypsies, which is said to have been based on the poet’s torrid, but brief experience living in a gypsy camp. They also found their way into opera. Sergei Rachmaninoff ‘s opera Aleko is based directly on the poem. Mérimée’s tale too, owes much to the Pushkin. Verdi’s gypsies, Azucena (Il Trovatore) Preziosilla(La Forza del destino) and Ulrica ( Masked Ball) are far less glamorous than Carmen, but Victor Hugo’s young and beautiful Esmeralda (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) also became an opera heroine in La Esmeralda, an opera by Louise Bertin, for which Hugo, himself, wrote the libretto.
Sagi’s production features large, full stage sets. The first act set and costumes particularly, created an unengaged, unrealistic mood. Cigarette girls in gauzy pale costumes and the solders in elegant white cutaway coats, did nothing to whet the appetite for passion. Micaëla, in long, heavy garments and daintily heeled shoes, could never have gotten through mountain passes in her search for Don José.
Though Carmen is an opera whose plot purports to turn on love, it is a work essentially devoid of love - and of the music of love. Every word that Carmen speaks, every phrase she sings to José - even as he recalls the cherished flower she gave him, is nasty and taunting. Did she ever love him? Or did she seduce him only to escape prison? She does make one declaration of love in the opera. It is a brief, unimpassioned repetition of the love melody Escamillo sings to her in the last act. Is she in love now? The music isn’t convincing. And isn’t he the one who bought her that snazzy red dress? I find only two emotionally engaging moments in the opera. Carmen’s card song, predicting her death, and José’s “Flower Song”. And yes, add his outbursts of anger in the last scene. Micaëla does not sing of love. Nothing that Micaëla’s says or sings makes her believable. No music Bizet composed, no words Meilhac or Halévy wrote, no shading any sopranos have brought to these two roles, has led me to respond to these women as other than stock characters.
Patricia Bardon was a mildly sexy Carmen. Though her dark mezzo soprano suited the musical range of the character, her dancing (mostly skirt swishing) was far from seductive. Her second act dance (Carmen’s reward to José for returning to her after his imprisonment), performed without castanets (the clacking came from the orchestra) was pallid. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who sang Don José, is a singer who moves easily from Puccini to Wagner. His lyricism stood him in good stead in the “Flower Song” - his power and dramatic capacity highlighted the last scene. Bass baritone, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, usually a commanding presence in any cast, seemed somewhat lack luster as Escamillo. But then, the Toreador’s entrances and exits, which are generally staged as brilliant, almost pompous affairs, were undramatic. The sound of Escamillo’s voice singing the “Toreador Song” before his third act appearance evoked audience laughter, as did his invitation to Don José to fight with him, reflecting a problem in stage direction. Soprano Pretty Yende, debuting with the company, was a charming, lyrical Micaëla. Though the libretto implies that Micaëla, an orphan, and Don José, were brought up almost as sister and brother, there was a strange lack of familiarity between them, to say nothing of love. Hae Ji Chang as Frasquita, and Cassandra Zoé Velasco as Mercédès performed a delightful and well sung duet. Keith Jameson and Museop Kim were convincing as El Remendado and El Dancaïre.
Conductor Plácido Domingo offered a whiplashed overture, and a performance that emphasized rhythm over lyricism. The Los Angeles Children’s chorus acquitted themselves well, and except for a moment at its third act entrance, so did the Los Angeles Chorus.
The colorful costumes and fiery choreography created by Nuria Castejón encapsulated the sexiness and tension lacking elsewhere.
Perhaps some day, with a passionate advocate in the pit, producers, directors, and actor/singers committed to make its possessed character’s motives emotionally meaningful, I will see a performance of Carmen I, too, can love. But I fear the opera’s faults lie with Messieurs Meilhac, Halévy and Bizet, so I’m not very optimistic.