When it comes to Bizet’s Carmen, it’s an “either/or” situation. It’s either about the lusty Carmen with her cigarettes and seguidillas, or it’s all about Don Jose, the misogynist murderer who pales next to the handsome toreadors and picadors of Seville.
Iconoclastic, you say? I’ve seen more than a few Carmen productions, including dance and theater versions, and I’ve noticed that directors go for either Spanish feminine radiance or the disturbing dark side of the obsessed soldier.
It’s not unlike the situation with Giselle, a ballet I’ve always felt could just as easily have been called Albrecht. Often it’s the philandering young Duke Albrecht who garners the most attention, while Giselle, with her unconditional compassion for her thoughtless lover, fades into little more than a secondary character.
Of course, there is room for both sides of the story in any single production. Houston Grand Opera’s new Carmen, a co-production with San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, seems to favor Don Jose. Singing from the soloists throughout is good, but not great. Singing from the chorus, including a large children’s group, is stellar.
There is some hackneyed dancing here and there, from director and choreographer Rob Ashford, which makes the whole thing feel more like Carmen Miranda than Carmen.
There is some hackneyed dancing here and there, from director and choreographer Rob Ashford, which makes the whole thing feel more like Carmen Miranda than Carmen. The set and costume designs are mostly traditional. This is a difficult shift, however, for opera fans to make after HGO’s groundbreaking Das Rheingold.
Perhaps the most ridiculous role in this production is the one given to solo dancer Rasta Thomas, who appears shirtless in high-waisted black tights and a longhorn mask. He is The Bull. He shows up whenever the music gets dark and moody, splays his fingers and then does a couple of pirouettes before running off stage. Now and then he gets lifted by a toreador in an odd duet.
It’s like he’s stumbled in from another theater, where he was supposed to have been dancing the Minotaur in Martha Graham’s Errand Into the Maze.
Two years ago, conductor Rory Macdonald did a thrilling job with HGO’s Rape of Lucretia. He plods and dawdles, however, with this Carmen. Much of it is just too slow, but not so slow as to be deeply stylized, like Leonard Bernstein’s famous recording. The balance between orchestra and singer is off in many places, all of them favoring the loud orchestra, except when the powerful HGO chorus takes over.
What of Ana María Martínez in title role? She is a singer I’ve admired greatly, but here she seems to have a problem with what I’ll term “Divability factor.” She’s at about 6, when she needs to be at 10. Carmen is a role to be seized, asserted, thrown in your face. “Fierce,” as they say.
Julia Migenes-Johnson was a great Carmen. Maria Callas could change your life with just her habanera, even in a simple concert setting. There should be the sense that Carmen is conducting each of her arias in this opera, not the conductor in the pit. She must take the wheel and steer the opera to its conclusion. “L'amour est un oiseau rebelle,” she sings. Love is a rebellious bird. Carmen taunts the imposing soldiers in the very first scene: “cut me, burn me, I won’t say a thing.” Carmen is one tough cookie.
She wasn’t bad. She was confident, but in a way that suggested she was taking the role for granted.
Once his voice warmed up, which took most of Act I, Brandon Jovanovich as Don Jose offered some powerful singing, though his intonation continued wavering until the conclusion. It was as if he couldn’t hear himself over the orchestra. He drew the first “Bravo!” from the house. Ryan McKinney is a competent Escamillo, and Natalya Romaniw is a convincing but sometimes shrill Micaela. Some of the most smoothly powerful singing came from Reginald Smith, Jr. in the minor role of Dancaire.
David Rockwell’s set designs aren’t the sort to rouse spontaneous applause just after the curtain goes up. His second act scene at Lillas Pastia’s inn feels more like 1970s East Berlin than anywhere in Spain. It’s monochromatic and forgettable. Donald Holder’s lighting design is best in the last act, where the sun sets on the bullfight as well as on the tormented lovers.
The choral scenes, consistently bold and beautiful throughout the evening, are what keep this Carmen together.