Santa Fe, N.M. — The production of Bizet’s Carmen at Santa Fe Opera makes a total of three updates for three operas. Don Pasquale worked quite nicely in the present due to the universality and timelessness of the plot. Many thought the Hitler-ization of Beethoven’s Fidelio was effective in bringing it into the life experience of most of the audience, but I was appalled. And almost everyone enjoyed director Stephen Lawless’ bold and raucous update of Carmen.
Although it takes a while for you to notice, the action has been moved to a Mexican border town in the 1960’s. All of the characters remain as they are in the original—there will always be soldiers, gypsies, bullfighters and smugglers, no matter what era you choose. Here, they are smuggling drugs and children into the United States.
The role of Carmen is one of the juiciest female parts in the repertoire. Originally written for a mezzo-soprano, an equal number of sopranos have given it a try. Such is the case in this production. Puerto Rican-born soprano Ana María Martínez is listed in the program as a soprano but you would have to look it up to be sure. She certainly sounds like a mezzo with a low range of great power and richness. She uses her voice as a part of her characterization and is not afraid to modify it for effect. Some phrases are snarled and others blast to distortion. When she feels it’s right to do so, she also does some stunningly beautiful singing, although the top of her voice pales in comparison to the raw power of the bottom. She also uses the French language in a similar manner, exaggerating its unique sounds and throwing some words like knives.
As Don Jose, the Italian tenor Roberto De Biasio certainly has the right voice for the role. Almost more impressive than his stentorian top notes is the beautiful pianissimo that he carries all the way up to the high note in his heartbreaking aria “La fleur que tu m'avais jetée.” He generates a white-hot anger in his confrontations with Carmen as her attention cools and his life slides downhill.
What is missing in De Biasio’s characterization is a sense of his degeneration from loyal soldier and devoted son to a crazed madman who will stab his ex in a jealous rage in a public place. He appears in that last scene neatly dressed in his Sunday suit, hair combed and cleanly shaven. We know from a projection that he wore that suit at his mother’s burial, but that was a while ago and he is way too spiffy for someone in his disintegrated state of mind. The final deadly confrontation with Carmen is oddly staged. Unusually more nose-to-nose, the two rarely get close to each other. Instead, they circle, Carmen presumably looking for an escape hatch and Jose just flailing around.
Designer Benoit Dugardyn creates a set made of wooden panels on two levels that move into different configurations to create the various scenes. From a flat wall to a huge and bullring-like semicircle, the set is a marvel. Lighting by Pat Collins frequently casts stark shadows, reminiscent of old black-and-white film noir.
It also makes a surface for Jon Driscoll’s marvelous projections. Some vintage footage of bullfights sets the mood during the overture, but that’s only the beginning. The projections run throughout the opera, showing us events we would never see otherwise. For example, we see Jose’s dying mother, with Micaëla tending to her, and we see the hopeless faces of the children in their desperate attempt to sneak across the U.S. border.
Micaëla, Don Jose’s loyal girl back home, is played by the Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury. She brings some spirit and spunk to what is usually a wishy-washy and cloyingly sweet ingénue role. She also brings a full and forceful soprano voice that adds steely resolve to her aria “C'est les contrabandiers le refuge ordinaire,” sung when she is alone in a dangerous place and hunting for Jose. In her hands, that aria sounds less “stuck in” to give the soprano an aria, and also less like something sugary by Charles Gounod.
There is little to be done with the role of Escamillo except to go with the stereotype. He is a character who has existed through the ages—star athlete, untouched by intelligence, surrounded by a bevy of bodacious beauties and sleazy friends with links to the criminal cadre. The Lithuanian bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas certainly looks right for the role and over-revels in the admiration lavished on him. He also has the swagger and confidence required to assume that Carmen will fall for him (he’s right). He has his work cut out for him sometimes because of the direction: he first enters staggering, not swaggering, drunk, another time on a beer hall mechanical bull, and also has to do a turn as Elvis. Vocally, we are used to a deeper-voiced, more Verdian baritone, but he makes his lighter instrument work well enough.
Lillias Pastia is played as a greasy haired scumball who has his hand in everyone’s pocket and runs a cheap dive. The role is played with delicious depravity by Grant Neale. Pastia’s floorshow features Carmen and her two cohorts, Frasquita (Amanda Opuszynski) and Mercédès (Sarah Larsen), as a Carmen Miranda-esque girl act with Carmen as lead singer. Their ruffled risqué dresses, which barely connect at the waist, are the crowning contribution of costumer Jorge Jara. Choreographer Nicola Bowie tears up the place with a jive-jitterbug that burns the floor.
The other roles are all ably handled. Evan Hughes’ Zuniga is sinister and threatening. The boys chorus is terrific. The adult chorus is also excellent in their various stages of dress and undress.
Carmen’s fellow smugglers are also quite good, with Dan Kempson as Le Dancaïre and Noah Baetge as Le Remendado. The quintet “Nous avons en tête une affaire!” shot sparks even though the tempo was slightly rushed at the performance reviewed.
Much is made of the packages of what we presumed to be cocaine. There is significant sniffing going on. Jose even snorts as he flees off with the criminals for a life of crime.
As aside: I overheard this comment at the intermission—“Why were they smelling their hands?” I guess it must have looked strange to someone so clueless.
The move to a Mexican border town only falls apart at the scene usually taking place in the smuggler’s lair. Lawless sets it at a high chainlink border fence. This works well for getting the illegal children up and over but doesn’t work at all after that. And having the rest of the action right at the supposedly guarded border fence make little sense. They wouldn’t spend time there reading tarot and scheming. Escamillo has no reason to be there and Michaela’s appearance, on the American side of the border, is just plain silly. A quick scene change from the border fence to a more remote location would have solved these problems. Other than that, this is a zinger of a Carmen and the change of time and venue works.
Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald does a fine job of keeping the intensity of the music throughout so that the moments of repose have maximum effect. The orchestra responded with verve. The whole experience is great fun.
Once again, Bizet’s masterpiece entrances everyone, from seasoned operagoers to newbies. You may think “not another Carmen” beforehand, but no matter how many productions you have seen, you are caught up from the first notes, and any reservations are quickly banished.
» Other reviews from the 2014 Santa Fe Opera season:
- Donizetti's Don Pasquale
- Beethoven's Fidelio
- Mozart's The Impresario and Stravinsky's Le Rossignol
- Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-sen