Carmen by Georges Bizet
McCaw Hall, Seattle Center
May 5, 2019 Matinee
Review by Sharon Cumberland
Georges Bizet’s Carmen is known as a “warhorse” in the opera world—one of those familiar works with catchy tunes and classic stories that everyone likes, even if they’ve never been to an opera. And if you’ve only been to a couple of operas in your life, you’ve probably seen a warhorse—like The Magic Flute or Don Giovanni (Mozart), Aida or La Traviata (Verdi), La Boehme or Madam Butterfly (Puccini).
But Carmen is the Queen of Warhorses—the very name conjures images of a seductive woman with castanets in a red flamenco dress, who has desperate men groveling at her feet. People love warhorses for a reason; like their namesakes, they are powerful, reliable, and beautiful all at once—and some, like Carmen, are also dangerous. Bizet’s music is feverishly contagious and the libretto is about hot sex, jealousy and murder. What’s not to love?
When Carmen premiered in Paris in 1875, audiences were deeply shocked by the raw, sexy story of a young man driven by passion to abandon his sweetheart and his career for the sake of a defiant, out-of-control woman. The show closed almost immediately, though it was quickly revived and has been top-of-the-ten ever since. Seattle Opera’s current production is updated to the more tame and conventional era of the 1950s, but it’s still a culture with strictly defined gender roles, and Carmen is a woman who refuses to be told how to behave by the men and mores of her day, even at the cost of her life. It’s truly a story for our times—and this exciting production makes the most of it.
On Sunday afternoon conductor Giacomo Sagripanti started off at a surprisingly fast tempo that matched the lively street scene of Seville, featuring a gang of children who not only sang like angels but romped and danced around like little devils. They wove in and out of a busy street scene, snatching and stealing from fruit and candy vendors—one little girl even stole a coat from a military officer—showing on a small scale the license that becomes licentiousness in the larger culture. Somehow we’re not surprised when the innocent Micaëla has to knock over a table to escape soldiers who try to corner her in their barracks when she comes to town in search of her fiancée, Don José. We’re also not surprised when we meet the girls who work in the cigarette factory. Their flirtatious scorn of the men crowding around them sets the scene for Carmen’s femme fatal entrance.
And what an entrance! If Dita Von Teese has a muse, it’s Carmen. Performed on Sunday with seductive irony by Seattle Opera debutant Zanda Ševede, we see a woman in complete control of the macho men around her, alternately teasing, demanding, ignoring, and humiliating them into mass submission with her sexual waves of aggression and indifference. Every aria that Carmen sings (all familiar—you’d recognize them instantly) are testaments to the triumph of sex over love, which is “A rebellious bird, that nobody can tame” as she sings in the Act I “Habanera.” Her embrace of seduction is the famous “Seguidilla” in Act II: “My lover is the devil…I have a dozen suitors—who will love me? I’ll love him back!”
Carmen’s casual ruin of Don José, a country boy who plans to go home to Mother and Micaëla after his army stint is over, leads everyone to disaster. It’s a classic tale of the Bad Girl who represents the forbidden pleasures of sex and irresponsibility versus the Good Girl representing home, family, and duty—but the Good Girl loses out. There is no redemptive love for anyone in Carmen.
Yet the chorus has a lot of fun in this production since every person has a distinct character to play, both in the city scenes and when we see the darker side of society among the outlaws—represented as gun-runners in this production. And there were some very modern moments as well—subtle references to identity expression such as a torero wearing a pink traje de luces, vamping up his dance moves, or a moment when Carmen shuns all the men around her and walks off in the embrace of her two best girlfriends.
I saw the matinee cast which featured singers making their debuts at Seattle Opera. Adam Smith was a very convincing Don Josè, whose descent into madness is represented by increasingly shabby clothes and bad grooming. Emily Dorn as Micaëla the sweet country girl engaged to Don José, overcame her perky Sandra Dee costuming and showed both courage and charm in all of her big stranger-in-a-strange-land moments. Zanda Ševede—beautiful in face, figure, and voice—gave a somewhat low-key, ironic interpretation of a femme fatale that also fit a more modern reading of what might otherwise be a clichéd characterization. I knew girls like her in college—wily, independent, and ruthless. This is a great role for Ševede —all she needs is to learn to dance the sevillana, a folk dance that kids in Seville still learn in kindergarten and that everyone there dances. I wasn’t convinced by Ševede’s abbreviated, rather stiff movement. Carmen would be an expert at this simple, playful, and potentially erotic dance.
Another complaint I have—in an otherwise terrific production—is the decision to make the matador, Escamillo, into a hokey imitation of Elvis or The Fonz. The role was sung powerfully by Rodion Pogossov, and he was a real trooper—hamming it up with a fake microphone after arriving on a motorcycle. But it’s a misreading of this small but important role (which includes the most famous aria of all, “Toreador, engarde!”) In long tradition, the Spanish matadors have been lower class men who risk their lives to rise up in a very segmented society where the high culture loves bullfighters in the corrida but not in the world of privilege—akin to boxers in our culture, except that the major characteristic of toreros, who are as elegant as ballet dancers and as brave as daredevils, is that they are social climbers and therefore highly dignified, demanding respect from everyone around them.
The most famous bullfighting novel in Spanish literature (it’s a genre of its own there) is Sangre y Arena by Blasco-Ibáñez, in which a famous bullfighter has an affair with woman of high society. Even naked in bed together, however, the matador has to address his lover in the formal usted instead of tu. This is a distinction that has many ramifications in a more conventional production of Carmen—is Escamillo toying with Carmen when he really means to move up in the world? Does she care? Or is he giving up trying to penetrate high society and going with a girl he understands? Will she dump him, too, or will he break her heart? It’s a meaningful subtext in the opera, and the fact that Carmen can snare one of these peasant-kings is a real step up in the world for her. So…the elegant and important Escamillo as a corny Elvis imitator? [Loud buzzer sounding].
One of the big stars of this production is another artist making his Seattle Opera debut—the production designer Gary McCann, whose clever settings evoke a whole world without being overly literal or intrusive. It’s exciting to see this level of talent—from everyone—on our stage in a production that is co-commissioned with Opera Philadelphia and Irish National Opera. The dear Speight Jenkins, who guided Seattle Opera from humble beginnings to its current splendor, used to say on the radio, after every opera preview “It’s going to be a great show! Don’t miss it!” I can echo that here—Carmen is a great show—don’t miss it! It’s on at McCaw Hall through the May 19th matinee.