CARMEN at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis

Revue BWW: CARMEN at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis

Opera Theater St. Louis opens its 47th season with a striking production by Bizet Carmen. Joy fills the building as the company returns to its beautiful stage at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the first time in three years.

at Bizet Carmen premiered in Paris in 1875-to generally poor reviews. This shocked both critics and audiences. Structurally it was a comical opera; for god’s sake, the very theater it opened in was called the comical opera! And yet, there is this very bloody death at the end! Is it verism? It is certainly not comical!

Georges Bizet died only three months after this premiere (at the age of 36). He was given a grand funeral. A commemorative performance of Carmen premiered that night, and the press—which had universally criticized the show when it opened—now declared Bizet a “master”. However, it took several more years and many performances (of different versions) before Carmen has been established, worldwide, as the true masterpiece that it is. In recent years it has been the fourth most produced opera in the world. The Opera Theater of St. Louis has produced it now four times, or about once a decade.

We enter the theater and we see the stage supported by high dark and eerie walls with a central door. Above and behind is a vast sky of rose gold. It’s oddly stained. On the ground in the lower left is-something-a pile of . . . in the dark, we don’t know what it is.

Daniela Candelari raises her baton; she turns the familiar opening into instant arousal. And here we go!!

To light up! As the opening progresses, Carmen enters and goes down to the left to pick up . . . it is a severed bull’s head. She casually carries it off as blood drips onto the stage. She walks almost at a tango step, with a slight delay in her dragging foot. It’s an inspired director’s touch.

The opening ends.

Maestra Candelari is only recently the main conductor of the OTSL, but this young woman is definitely a “guardian”! His orchestra is simply impeccable. The dynamics support the drama’s emotions beautifully, but the orchestra never overpowers the vocals. There is a wonderful softness everywhere.

All lead roles are (as usual with OTSL) sung by truly world-class voices. Sarah Mesko plays Carmen and blesses the role with her beautiful powerful voice, wonderful diction and a strong, broad-featured beauty.

Her two competing lovers, Don José and Escamillo, are sung by Adam Smith and Christian Pursell. Never have I heard two such splendid male voices so perfectly set against each other in romantic competition. Both men (tenor Smith and bass-baritone Pursell) are tall and strikingly handsome. The voice of Pursell, in the famous Toreador’s Song sounds quite heroic, and Smith, especially in his appeal to Carmen at the end of the tavern scene, sings with such wonderful feeling and power. The two combative duos-José vs. Escamillo and Jose vs. Carmen-are `beautiful. Both are powerfully mano a mano.

Yunuet Laguna sings Micaëla, the simple country girl who comes with messages from José’s beloved mother. In her air, alone and frightened in the deserted smugglers’ camp, imploring God to give her courage, she triumphs and gives a pure serenity to these high notes.

Supporting roles are uniformly strong. These include Jesús Vicente Murillo, Schyler Vargas, Titus Muzi, Cesar Andres Parreño and Jared Esguerra as officers, smugglers and innkeeper. Jazmine Olwalia lights things up as Carmen’s friend Mercedes, and Shelén Hughes is particularly feisty and frisky as Frasquita. Rachael Nelson gives a fiery flamenco dance.

Congratulations to the choirmaster Kevin Meunier for his work from start to finish! The almost crackling song in which the smugglers ask the girls for help flows so well, the crackle swirling around like bees. And the powerful chorus that closes this act is most impressive.

Director Rodula Gaitanou chooses to set the story not at the beginning of the 19th century, as Bizet indicates, but in the 1950s under the Franco regime. It didn’t bother me as much as I expected. I was perhaps the only one laughing when Carmen entered the first act on a motorcycle. This is merely a gimmick attempting to establish him as one of “The Wild Ones”.

Cordelia Chisholm, scenographer and costume designer, gives us a dark, oppressive and even brutal universe, quite specific to Franco. The costumes are in a suitably dark palette. But I have a quarrel or three with Mrs. Chisholm:

  1. Carmen wears mostly black, when she should be a pop of red against this dull backdrop. Should Carmen be red? (Rose red, blood red, Carmen red?) Should Richard III be dressed in soot black? Well, maybe yes to both.
  2. Escamillo sings the glorious “Toreador Song” in the most unflattering dark attire. Surely here he needs that sparkly traje de luces.
  3. IIn the smugglers’ camp, the flirtatious Frasquita wears a rather flashy men’s costume that simply screams “lesbian” – ill-suited to the task assigned to the girls: distracting the guards with seduction.

But my main problem with this production is the director’s choice to talk about Carmen’s struggle for women’s liberation. Carmen is the title role, but not the central character. Don José is the tragic character who yields to temptation and falls from innocence. Carmen loves sex and the power it gives her, she loves men (or loves using them), and she relishes the game she’s so good at. She is the female equivalent of Don Giovanni, chaining erotic conquests one after the other. And she’s no more discouraged by that recurring Tarot card of death than Giovanni is by the threat of fiery damnation. Giovanni is simply Ego (or Id); Carmen is a force of nature.

I saw Medea reduced from demigod to angry divorcee. Let’s not reduce Carmen from a magnificent temptress to a militant feminist. I am the least religious of men, but I hate to give way to a world where there is no more sin, there is only social injustice.

But Carmen it’s music! Bizet’s luscious and very modern score is magnificently staged at the Opéra Théâtre Saint Louis.

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Photo credit: Eric Woolsey

About Madeline J. Carter

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