BLO's "Carmen": Another Torrid Adorer

Michael Mayes as the Toreador Escamillo in "Carmen"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Widely known (even among those who aren’t opera buffs) for its famous Toreador aria, Georges Bizet’s Carmen is a much-beloved favorite of many fans, typically listed among their top ten operas. This is despite the fact that the titular heroine isn’t usually presented as a particularly nice or even sympathetic character. In the current Boston Lyric Opera production (amazingly the first professional opera company to grace the stage of the appropriately named Boston Opera House in almost two decades), a co-production with San Francisco Opera, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano plays the flirtatious Carmen more as a victim than as a predatory seducer. The Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy revolves around her relationships with the staunch soldier Don José (tenor Roger Honeywell) and torrid bullfighting hero Escamillo (baritone Michael Mayes), featuring village girl Micaëla (soprano Chelsea Basler). It's set in “modern day Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city in North Africa”.

As most music lovers will know, the libretto is a rather steamy one, from the first appearance of the gypsy girl Carmen. Virtually ignored by Don José (who initially loves Micaëla) until he arrests Carmen for fighting, she seduces him to gain her freedom. Subsequently she declares he must prove his love by deserting the army. Later in the gypsy camp, her ardor diminishes as she now professes love for the toreador Escamillo. Micaëla arrives to tell Don José his mother is dying, and they depart together, Don José threatening he will see Carmen again. In the final scene Don José confronts Carmen, trying to win her back, but when he fails…well, this is opera, so one shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t end happily. And that’s the tempestuous tale, told over four acts. For this opera to be so popular with such a simplistic story, there must be a powerful score, and indeed there is. The success of a production of Carmen, as with many operatic works, thus often depends on the quality of the singing and conducting, not necessarily on how deeply involved an audience is on an emotional level; but surprisingly this is not the case with this version, which not only boasts superior vocal talent and the depth of a huge orchestra, but also delivers an emotional wallop.
The Cast & Orchestra for BLO's "Carmen"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)
There's more than enough fire and passion (and sex!) in the singing and acting of this version, despite the minimalist sets (except for some classic cars and an imposing bull billboard). Catalonian Calixto Bieito, in his U.S. debut, delivers a stunning production, with Revival Direction by Joan Anton Rechi. Sensitively conducted by BLO's Music Director David Angus (except for the rapid-fire tempo in the overture), Cano and her three co-stars made this more than a mere potboiler, with Basler a standout in her aria Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante. The rest of the cast was extraordinary, including the singers in the roles of Moralès (baritone Vincent Turregano), Zuniga {bass Liam Moran), Frasquita (soprano Kathryn Skemp Moran), Mercédès (mezzo-soprano Heather Gallagher), El Dancairo (baritone Andrew Garland) and El Remendado (tenor Samuel Levine). Visually, the technical work was outstanding, from the Set Design by Alfons Flores, to the Costume Design by Merce Paloma, Lighting Design by (Robert Wierzel), and especially the realistic Fight Direction by Andrew Kenneth Moss. Mention should also be made of the huge orchestra of 63 musicians and a cast of 108 consisting of the BLO Chorus and the youthful Voices Boston, including soldiers, cigarette girls, smugglers, and gypsies, all with well-coordinated movement. Never has so much beefcake and cheesecake been on display, not gratuitously, and the effect was mesmerizing.
As Bieito sees it, his vision is one of a victim in a society wherein people “live and dream their lives very fast, full of violence”. He has made significant cuts in the score, especially the recitatives, to focus on these fast-paced lives. As he has said, his is an interpretation, an attempt at eliciting pity and compassion for both lovers. If you've never been a fan, this could result in a conversion. It's decidely difficult to remain cool about something so hot.

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