The following is based on the September 14th performance and contains plot spoilers.
Over the course of the last year, the LA Opera has been on a blistering roll with operas highlighting empowered women in lead roles. From “Salome,” to “Tosca,” and now the 2017-18 season-opener “Carmen,” which, because of significant demand, has added a seventh performance on September 28th, high-stakes plots about passion, seduction, and defiance have made for pulse-poundingly dramatic shows. The ever-increasing intensity of “Carmen” – throughout three-and-a-half hours spanning a well-paced progression of the narrative – is no different than its predecessors and is absolutely something to behold at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Since 1875, when the French opera set in Seville, Spain originally premiered, Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” (based on the novella by Prosper Mérimée) and with libretto by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, has detailed a story for the ages. The premise involves a soldier in Don José — a simple man with an allegiance to his mother and childhood sweetheart, Micaëla — who is easily seduced by headstrong troublemaker and gypsy seductress, Carmen, a cigarette factory worker. José accepts the dishonor of his actions exchange for Carmen’s love. However, Carmen is flighty and noncommittal in the devotion that she doles out, as she is an avowed free-spirit, and cannot be pinned down. A blaring siren of sensuality that she is, Carmen also pits her suitors against each other, attracting José’s captain, Zuniga, and the attention of the wildly charismatic bullfighter, Escamillo, who ultimately ingratiates Carmen over to his side. This makes a shamed man out of the tarnished José, who kills the devoutly unyielding Carmen.
There are three ways of looking at this turn of events in “Carmen” – an ambiguously amoral tale with many layers – thanks to the exquisite direction of Ron Daniels; the genius conducting work of James Conlon, who has done Bizet’s renowned compositions a triumphant justice; the stellar Spanish-rustic scenic design by Gerardo Trotti; and the appropriately atmospheric lighting by Duane Schuler. As observers we’ve been afforded a delicate tableau of work, insofar that we can, on one hand, allow our thought process to steer us in the direction of casting blame and aspersions on Carmen for playing the head games that she orchestrates upon José. She is seemingly in love one moment for her benefit, only to abruptly grow weary of her adoration, snapping out of it with a chilling decisiveness.
Conversely, we can just as easily excuse Carmen for her actions because she does, after all, spell out the destiny of any man who might dare to love her – “But if you love me, beware.” And, thus, José, according to this line of reasoning, naively acts against his own best interests, willingly staking his livelihood and happiness on a bet he was told would be rigged from day one. It’s difficult to muster sympathy for someone who acts so illogically, but then again, love does have a notorious tendency to prey on emotional vulnerabilities.
However, the third, and perhaps most likely viewpoint, is that both individuals aided the outcome that became their dual undoing, like magnetic poles that inevitably collided into oblivion.
The performances, as masterfully carried out as they are, not only evoke moral dilemmas and questions in this vein, but can and should be acknowledged on the basis of their artistic merit and quality.
Ana Maria Martinez, a soprano with a voice that flows like vintage champagne, portrays Carmen with a gusto that is both effervescent and fiercely obstinate. Martinez, for example, performs the famous “Habanera,” also known as “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (translated as “Love is a Rebellious Bird”) in Act One with an exuberant sense of rebellion in her voice, as she looks out with the semblance of a grin. Not to mention, the contrast between her individual voice and the ensemble’s support produces a startlingly impressive boom-like resonance every time the chorus comes around.
The proclamation of rebellion soon turns into hard-lined noncompliance when it is revealed that Carmen has savagely cut the face of a fellow employee. Martinez skillfully illustrates Carmen’s unapologetic lashing-out with a sizzling rendition of “Tra la la…Coupe-moi, brûle-moi,” effortlessly commanding all eyes to her. Then, Martinez is able to ostensibly turn on a dime – going from indignation to the sultry seduction of José during “Près des remparts de Séville” (“Seguidilla”). It is an incredible counterpoint that underscores Martinez’s versatility.
In Act Three, Scene One, Martinez is tremendous at communicating Carmen’s disappointment in the future awaiting her and José, when fortune cards reveal only one outcome for both – death. Martinez, resolute in her acting choice and expressions, throws down each card with a resigned and disgusted countenance during “Mêlons! – Coupons!” Just as memorable, though, is the first half of the piece, sung by Carmen’s gypsy friends — Mercédès (Kelley O’Connor) and Frasquita (Liv Redpath), who fancifully role-play their augured futures of marrying a young and old man, respectively. O’Connor makes a worthwhile impression, but it is the soprano, Redpath, who shows telltale signs as a future leading lady with an elite comic timing, and especially a vocal capacity that rings out with an astounding clarity and volume.
Furthermore, in Act Three, Scene Two, Martinez wears a spellbinding black dress that darkly portends her demise — a fashion statement that is a testament to the late Jesús del Pozo, and principal costume designer, Denitsa Bliznakova, whose influence is particularly felt with the dazzling matador attire. It’s also worth mentioning that Martinez is so obdurately fearless in her portrayal of Carmen, with regard to not ceding to José, that we are immensely respectful of Carmen’s decision to essentially take the path that ends in her life, even if we don’t agree with the arguable actions that may have fanned the flames of the climactic inferno she finds herself in.
Don José is played by Riccardo Massi, who does an excellent job of evolving his character throughout the opera (Brandon Jovanovich will play the role on September 20th, 23rd, and October 1st). In Act One, Massi gives José a necessary vulnerability, specifically when he school-boyishly yields to Carmen, who lays claim to him by throwing a flower. In addition, Massi’s tenor voice has a gushing innocence about it, making it easy for us to believe that, as José, he does initially take his mother’s request to marry Micaëla very seriously (“Parle-moi de ma mère”).
In Act Two, when José is mocked by Carmen for needing to abruptly leave because a bugle call demands him to report to role call, Massi infuses José with an energized righteousness, as he protests Carmen’s cruelty, and reassures her incessantly. Massi, moreover, underlies his singing (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”) with a hint of anger in his beseeching of Carmen that insidiously hints at what he’ll later be capable of. With “Holà holà José!” we witness José’s annoyance and now potent irritability bubble over more with Carmen, and Massi is skilled enough whereby he makes the emotional adjustment in a way that is organic. Needless to say, it’s in the last moments of the opera (C’est toi! – C’est moi!) when José transforms into a desperate man infected by a rancorous rage. As such, both Massi and Martinez deserve ample recognition for ratcheting up the momentum with each beat to make for a superbly suspenseful finale.
Dallas-native Amanda Woodbury is the exemplary girl next door in Micaëla, who is the image of an uncorrupted and wholesome winsomeness. She is the diametric opposite of Carmen, as she is family-oriented, even-tempered, and loyal – traits that Woodbury actualizes with an affecting naturalism – which makes José’s shunning of her all the more head-scratching. Woodbury is a seamless fit in the role with her comfortingly velvet tonality, notably during “C’est les contrabandiers le refuge ordinaire,” when her character entreatingly sings for her and José’s protection from (the fear of) uncharted surroundings.
The last of the principals is Alexander Vinogradov, who, as Escamillo, dares to steal the show on a few occasions with dynamic bursts of galvanizing showmanship. This is apparent from the very outset with the famed “Toreador Song” (“Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre”) when Vinogradov, a bass, arrives on stage sporting an alpha charisma that is accentuated by the confident projection and intonation in his voice. In Act Three, Scene One, Vinogradov impresses again, this time with his spoken-line delivery to José, who ignominiously discovers the identity of Carmen’s new lover (Escamillo) staring right at him. The two duel it out in a rousing knife fight with ultra-realistic fight choreography (by Ed Douglas) that retains a transfixing poetic fluidity.
Additional commendations go to the marvelous male and female flamenco dancers, who clap, stomp, and synchronously open and close their red fans (credit also goes to choreographer Nuria Castejón); the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, who sing the invigorating “Les voici, voici la quadrille” as the procession of the bulls transpires in the last scene; Philip Cokorinos (Zuniga), who has been a stalwart performer for the LA Opera; Juan Carlos Heredia (Moralès), whose vibrato adds a distinctness to his baritone stylings; and Brian Michael Moore (Le Remendado) and Theo Hoffman (Le Dancaïre), who are both quite affable as thievery-recruiters during “Nous avons en tête une affaire.”
Undeniably, the LA Opera continues its streak of can’t-miss shows, with another production in “Carmen” that includes not only unmatched set pieces, but thrilling music, and a compelling plot that is intrepidly led by its intense female protagonist. It is also an insightful commentary on the human psyche, and why we sometimes make the decisions that we do when embroiled in a web of passion.
There are five more showings of “Carmen” scheduled — on Sunday, September 17th at 2 pm; Wednesday, September 20th at 7:30 pm; Saturday, September 23rd at 7 pm (this one will also be broadcast live at the Santa Monica Pier and Exposition Park); Thursday, September 28th at 7:30 pm; and Sunday, October 1st at 2 pm.
For more information about “Carmen” and future shows at the LA Opera, please visit laopera.org