Dallas — Bizet’s Carmen boldly stepped onto the stage at Dallas’ superb Winspear Opera House on Friday evening. If there was a grand prize to be awarded for the evening, it would go to, well, Bizet. His opera came through as the masterpiece of dramatic music that has always kept it on Operabase’s top 10 list of the most popular operas. In the 2015/2016 season, it sat at number three with 3280 performances worldwide.
Success was not immediate for Bizet, however. Initial reviews were a mixture and it scandalized the public with onstage violence, sexuality and murder, featuring an army deserter joining with smugglers and loose women who matched the common perception at the time of the Roma people. Musically and dramatically, this production was riveting in spite of the self-imposed limitations of the set. More about that later.
This opera lives and dies on the casting, and mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac takes the prize as one of the best portrayals of the title role in memory. Once she warmed up on opening night, Friday, her vocal portrayal was multifaceted. Every note was colored to enhance the meaning of each word. It hardly required supertitles to understand what she was saying, her dialogue ranging opulent to a sarcastic sneer to a seductive coo. Dramatically, she became Carmen without a hint of “acting,” using her sinewy body and quick wit as the tools of her survival.
Here is just one example of the exceptional range of her portrayal. Usually, Carmen is played as a schemer who uses whomever is handy to promote her selfish aims. D’Oustrac starts out that way, as a seductress, to get Don José to let her escape from arrest. But by the second act as she awaits his return after his prison term for helping her escape, things are different. Her eagerness to see him, to the point of refusing to go with her fellow smugglers, tells us that she really cares for him and she is sincere in beginning their eventually destructive relationship as lovers. Then, we see her grow tired of this innate lovesick boy scout in favor of the dashing sports hero toreador. In the last act, in a moment of blazing honesty, she flatly states that she doesn’t love him anymore. In d’Oustrac’s portrayal, unlike others in the role who fling this crucial confession at him as a weapon, she delivers the line as a simple statement of fact without any anger at all, making it truly devastating. More so than any amount of anger would do.
As the hapless Don José, tenor Stephen Costello turns in a performance of a simple country boy who is hopelessly out of his element and buffered by events that a man more in tune with the ways of the world would have easily avoided. His experience with women is displayed by the appearance of the virginal girl from back home, Micaëla, who delivers a chaste kiss from his mother. He is an easy mark for the hot-blooded Carmen, drenched with sexuality. Costello gives us a hint of what his unrestrained id looks like in the first act. When Carmen gives him access to her body and he lets himself loose to respond, he momentarily turns into a sexual madman attacking her with a frenzy that even the experienced Carmen can barely control.
Vocally, Costello has never sounded better. All of the minor vocal tics that marked his earlier performances are gone. There is evenness to his voice, without any change from top to bottom that is rare in singers these days. When he opens up to raw emotion and abandons his character’s usual control in the final dénouement with Carmen, he commands the stage and puts the audience on the edge of their seats. In a brilliant coup de théâtre, his murder of Carmen is accidental. He always threatens her with a knife in every production, but here we know that he has no intention to use it. Carmen grabs the knife from him and he tries to retrieve it. Her throat is slashed in the struggle. This adds another, unexpected, layer to the tragedy.
Soprano Sara Gartland has a beautiful voice that is also perfectly even among the registers. For my taste, her voice is too dark for Micaëla with its spinto overtones. A more lyric approach to this simple peasant girl would better fit the character. Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov is full of bluster as the self-centered toreador Escamillo, but his voice sounds unnaturally darkened and he consistently used more sound than required.
Bizet’s opera also depends on clearly defined secondary roles and in this production, they all are excellent vocally and dramatically. Ben Wager uses his deep bass voice to bring a devil-may-care moral flexibility to the role of Don José’s commanding officer, Zuniga. When he learns that José has replaced him as Carmen’s current squeeze, unlike the way it is usually performed, his reaction is not anger. It is reacted to with a win-some-lose-some casualness, featuring an ironic smile and an “Oh, well” shrug.
The trio of deplorables who hang around with Carmen, sung by baritone Gideon Dabi, tenor Rafael Moras, and baritone Corey Crider, are a highlight. They add a Keystone Cops-bumble to their first-rate voices in every interaction. Their female counterparts and Carmen’s constant companions in crime and sexual escapades, as played by sopranos Sarah Tucker and Lindsay Metzger, are given distinctly different personalities. Their barely conscience drunken antics in Lillas Pastia’s disreputable dive add a black comic effect to the usual air of simple degradation. (Christopher Devlin portrayed Pastia for the opening night performance.)
Vocally, the other characters lack d’Oustrac’s uncanny ability to shade every phrase with the subtext as well as the actual text. As a result, what would be considered highly nuanced performances elsewhere seem oddly constrained. Costello’s Don José shows flashes of his hidden rage, but except at the end, his character’s efforts to control himself occasionally comes off as bland. Of course, this works for Costello in his efforts to give Don José an almost bipolar personality.
Gartland’s Micaëla shows lots of emotion but little of the spunk that allows her to follow Don José to the city, a scary place for an innocent country girl, and later even to the smugglers dangerous hideout. Devlin’s Pastia is appropriately seedy. Vinogradov’s conceited toreador is definitely one dimensional, but maybe that is the best way to realistically portray him.
Sue Blane’s costumes are a kaleidoscope of eras and range from monochromatic to blazing color. Alexander Rom’s impeccably trained Dallas Opera Chorus convincingly transitions from lowlifes to city slickers. Meredith Wallace’s ragtag children’s chorus is excellent and amusing on stage, even though they rush the tempo in the first act. Andrew George’s original choreography, recreated for this performance by Andrzej Glasniak, does the best that can be done in the restricted stage area the set allots them. Director David McVicar’s original staging, created for an earlier production and that was supervised by Jack Furness, suffers the same fate.
Now, to the unfortunate set.
Michael Vale created it in 2016 for Sweden’s Göteborgs Operans Danskompani Theater. Maybe their stage was twice the size of the Winspear and the set was clumsily condensed, which is the only logical explanation for its intrusiveness.
The set works for Lilas Pastia’s basement den of iniquity, but other than that, it is not only confusing but squeezes the action into small slivers of the Winspear’s vast stage. The first act is cramped and features a high fenced wall that separates the soldier’s roost from the cigarette factory like a hotly defended border wall. We get mass confusion and the action becomes mush. No one can tell who is who. For the third act, the stage is, thankfully, barren, but gives no indication that it is anything, let alone the mountainous refuge of the ungodly.
The last act set is the worst. The wall surrounding the bullring is placed so far downstage that the big crowd scene is exactly that: crowded. The usually magnificent procession of the traje de luces adorned matadors with their colorfully costumed bandilleros and picadors, is turned into brief entrances at the far side of the stage, then delivering curt bows before vanishing. There is no place for them to go, let alone march. The mayor and his court are not on a reviewing stand, but forced together in a little knot on the far side of the stage. We only realize who they were when, waving to the assemblage, they try to exit through the throng. The final departure of the chorus is unintentionally comical as they wait impatiently to get through the slim exit provided by the set. It looked like costumed partygoers lined up around the block trying to force their way into an already packed dance club.
On the podium, TDO Musical Director Emmanuel Villaume effectively uses Bizet’s music to express the drama. This may sound self-evident, but it is not how it is usually performed. Using minimal but highly expressive motions, he reveals Bizet’s astounding use of the orchestra to become a character in the unfolding drama. Frequently, he uses even the briefest of orchestral statements to underline the meaning of the words. He also effectively uses connecting passages, no matter how short, to carry the audience from one thought to the next, either commenting on or preparing for the next emotion. While there were some occasional troubles coordinating with the stage on Friday, mostly caused by the useless set, the orchestra responded with a suppleness that is critical to opera but rarely seen in performances these days. Working without the crutch of a baton, Villaume’s hands conveyed exactly how every phrase should be played.
But this was not Villaume’s Carmen. It was Bizet’s.
» NOTE: The free live simulcast of Carmen in Klyde Warren Park has been moved to Friday, Nov. 2.