Early in Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Albrecht makes a choice: Love or power. He can only make the magic ring from the Rheinmaidens’ gold if he swears off romance forever. The choice seems easy for him.
After just a few minutes of Georges Bizet’s 1875 Carmen, you might make the very same choice.
Carmen, the fiery Spanish tale of irresistible seduction, maddening love and tragic ends, opens on Friday night as the final offering of the Houston Grand Opera this season at the Wortham Theater Center.
But how do you follow an opera that cracks open the world? The sensational La Fura dels Baus production of Das Rheingold, which began HGO’s very first Ring cycle, was a revelation in stage technology and vocal mastery. And of course, the world does crack open near the end, one of many signs of the tragedies yet to come in Wagner's epic imagination.
With Carmen the HGO brings the season to a close with an extraordinarily popular work. How popular is popular?
Carmen ranks as one of the most performed works, internationally, on the operatic stage. And though the Andrews Sisters are by no means names likely to ring too many bells these days, they provide one index of Carmen’s enduring popularity.
Here they are, in fact, with their own translation of the opera into the “Carmen Boogie”:
The lyrics make light of both opera and love at the same time:
Hate the opera, it's too high brow
But there's one number I can dig right now
Just like shifting without a clutch
Arrived the boogie with the Carmen touch
The Carmen boogie is even “the reason that Niagara falls”!
If you listen you can hear behind the signature sound of the Andrews sisters, the pulse of Carmen’s opening aria “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love is a rebellious bird”) also known as the Habanera.
Here’s Anna Caterina Antonacci who created the role for this Royal Opera House production in 2006 and then reprised the role again in 2014:
There’s nothing like the opening minor key and the unforgettable descending chromatic slide to tell you that love is no laughing matter. Carmen tells us herself the central problem: “Love is a rebellious bird / That none can tame.” Carmen remains utterly and resolutely untamable as she seduces a solider for her own amusement.
Don José’s painfully dedicated girlfriend Micaela and even his dying mother can’t keep him from getting arrested and disgraced, joining a band of smugglers, fighting with friends, and finally murdering the woman he loves. Carmen, at this point, has moved on to greener pastures, trading her toy solider for a bullfighter.
Carmen remains utterly and resolutely untamable as she seduces a solider for her own amusement.
Is there any better sign of destructive passion than a bullfight?
Perhaps it goes without saying, but there’s no Carmen without Carmen. Casting is key, and happily Ana Maria Martinez returns to the HGO for this title role.
Martinez was, just a few seasons ago, a devastatingly vulnerable Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly. Seduced and abandoned by an American soldier, she takes her life.
Here is Martinez singing "Un Bel Di Vedremo" in that Houston production:
Carmen is a woman who seduces and abandons, reigning destruction upon those who fall under her spell. Is that, perhaps, the essence of Carmen — that she serves to take revenge on men for all those suffering woman in opera? Dare to dream.
Joining Martinez as the love-crazy Don Jose is HGO veteran Brandon Jovanovich who was an impressive Don Carlos just two seasons ago. Natalya Romaniw plays opposite Jovanovich as the long-suffering Micaela. Ryan McKinney, a scintillating Kurwenal in last season’s Tristan and Isolde and a stellar Donner in this season’s Das Rheingold, sings the part of Escamillo, the fiery toreador who steals Carmen’s heart.
Das Rheingold and Carmen make for an odd but fitting final pair this season, love and power being two sides of opera. Operas seduce but they also destroy.