Fort Worth — If I asked you to name an opera about sex, betrayal, murder, carnal obsession, illicit affairs, ignoring the wishes of a dying mother, and deserting rank in the army, with hair-pulling fist fights between two women, knife and sword fights, smuggling, murder and gambling—just to name a few of the depravities—could there be any other choice than Bizet’s Carmen? This story about obsession’s power to ruin otherwise upright citizens, and the life of the gypsies (or Roma), has captured audiences from its premiere to the present day.
It’s one of the world’s most produced operas, and the latest chance for local audiences to see it comes in the Fort Worth Opera Festival, where it’s playing at Bass Performance Hall through May 6.
Carmen, played by a smoldering Audrey Babcock, is a sexual predator. She circles her victim while spinning a trap from which there is no escape. Like a spider, once she captures her prey, she sucks the life out of the captured and tosses them aside. This time, it is the young and unsophisticated fresh recruit, Don Jose, played by tenor Robert Watson, in her grasp.
When Carmen is arrested for public brawling (again), she needs Don José to help her escape from yet another incarceration. The problem is that emergency use of her sexual prowess captured José. When she wants a new love, which often happens, she can’t shake José after his momentary usefulness. Worse, he has changed from an attractive soldier into to a cloying and irritating vestigial appendage.
Carmen is ready to move on and has set her sights on a new love interest, the buff Matador Escamillo, played by the tall, dark, and handsome baritone Craig Irvin. José can’t believe that she prefers this vapid and vain jock. The situation puts José over the edge.
José’s manic obsession with Carmen continues to grow in the withering darkness of her distain. Carmen is vital to his very life so he ignores her cruelty, and just to be near her, joins her cutthroat companions. José’s back-home, small-town girlfriend, Micaëla, sung by Kerriann Otaño, shows up to try to save him. When she delivers a chaste kiss from his mother, it temporarily gives him a moment of sanity. But alas, ’twas not to be.
A twist of fate forces him back into a criminal’s life but, without the consolation of Carmen’s love, he only sees a cold barren life. Carmen’s blatant sexuality will always be present but cruelly denied to him and easily granted to others.
All this puts Jose over the edge. In a final confrontation, Carmen humiliates him, even laughs at him, and this destroys what is left of José. He kills her with his knife.
As you may guess, this is an opera that takes singing actors. In fact, I would venture to reverse those words and say it requires actors that are singers. This is not to minimize the transcendental difficulties of the four leading parts, especially Carmen, who is almost always on stage, and José, which requires a spinto tenor who can float some soft notes.
As Carmen, Babcock gives us everything she has, vocally and dramatically. Her sturdy mezzo-soprano voice ranges from a seductive purr to all-out fury. On the characterization side, her training in Spanish dance adds authenticity to her portrayal, from the liquid movement of her raised hand to a virtuoso performance on the castanets.
Robert Watson, as the hapless solider Don José, has the hardest part to pull off dramatically. He starts out as a country boy, out of his element in the big town of Seville, and spirals down to a disheveled shell of a man. His only remaining driving force is his overpowering lust for Carmen. Watson does a fine job, but is at best in the last scene. He has a powerful tenor voice that successfully competes with Babcock’s volcanic powerhouse.
The only disappointment was that Watson didn’t observe the composer’s pianissimo marking on the last phrase of his aria, which rises to a B flat at the end. Instead, we got a sonic blast, better reserved for the likes of “Nessun Dorma” (from Puccini’s Turandot).
Craig Irvin slightly underplays the role of Escamillo, which is preferable to the usual overplaying we usually get. Vocally, his striking baritone perfectly fits the role. Dramatically, a little more of the egotistical peacock, radiating sexual allure, would help.
As his girl-back-home, Kerriann Otaño’s portrayal of Micaëla is vocally strong. She has a big Italianate voice that could can sing the big Verdi roles. But dramatically, she is a misfire.
When she arrives at the military outpost, Micaëla is supposed to be a little frightened by the handsy soldiers, but bravely tries to find José. Instead, Otaño smiles like Mary Poppins throughout. Her ridiculous frock, by costume designer Susan Memmott Allred, doesn’t help. (More about the costumes later). It is a nightmare of gingham and frills that looks like something left behind by a third-rate touring company of some mediocre Kalman operetta.
William Clay Thompson brings a smarmy and machismo-laden portrayal to the role of Zuniga. In the two roles of Carmen’s sidekicks, Frasquita and Mercedes, soprano Christina Pecce and mezzo-soprano Anna Laurenzo create two mini-me copies of Carmen. As their male counterparts in the gypsy camp, baritone Alex DeSocio and tenor Brian Wallen give the roles of Le Dancaïre and Le Remendad a sinister and menacing exterior with the interior of a rascal. In the role of the look-the-other-way tavern owner, Andrew Surreno’s Lillas Pastia could use a little more whimsy tossed into his criminality.
Director David Lefkowich put all three of his skills to good use in this staging. He is a stage director, choreographer and fight director. A great percentage of the action matches Bizet’s score as if the action was choreographed, but not like a dance. Important stage business occurs on downbeats and he uses humor as an occasional break from the ever-present undercurrent of sexual violence. However, Lefkowich demolishes the fourth wall by having Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price stroll across the stage, at the end of the parade scene, in a spiffy black evening dress. (OK. I get it. The text mentions “mayor.” Ha ha.)
R. Keith Brumley’s set is a mystery. Two huge floor-to-ceiling gray walls enclose the action, but add little to the creation of the various scenes.
Susan Memmott Allred’s costumes are unflattering to the soldiers. She dresses them in yellow pseudo-uniforms that adds about 20 pounds to each of the men. (Her baffling dress for Micaëla was mentioned earlier.) The women in the cast fare better with their traditional Spanish dresses.
Chang J. Jung’s lighting was almost always appropriate. An occasional burst of brilliant light must have been an accident.
Joe Illick, Music Director of FWO, delivers an exciting orchestral support for the action. On opening night, some things were a little too fast and others too slow, but these are standard complaints about any conductor. He never covered the singers and, for the most part, was on top of the text. He is a fine conductor and his move to Santa Fe is Fort Worth’s loss.
This is a very good, if flawed, production of Bizet’s masterwork. Babcock will surely take her fiery Carmen to the major houses. I, for one, will be cheering her on.