By LIZ BYRON. Carmen is a classic opera whose music is so well-known that even opera virgins will probably recognise some of the songs. Indeed, I walked into the Ordway knowing nothing about the opera but that it featured a woman, presumably named Carmen, who might at some point wear a red dress. But it turns out that composer Georges Bizet’s score is so pervasive that it is everywhere, I could almost sing along with a couple of numbers, and I bet you could too — try “Votre Toast” (Your toast), or “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love is a rebellious bird).
Carmen is a classic opera that tells the tale of a beautiful woman whose fickle heart leads her to disaster after she seduces a jealous man. As we are introduced to Carmen, she explains that she is only able to love someone who does not love her (L’amour est un oiseau rebelle). True to her claim Carmen finds herself falling in love with a soldier, Don José, who is the only man who shows no interest in her. She seduces him and convinces him to leave the army to join her smuggler friends in a clandestine life of crime, only to grow bored of him. Well, you can imagine that this one doesn’t have the happiest of endings.
In this performance the Minnesota Opera continues its trend of making opera more relevant and accessible by moving the story from its traditional setting in early 19th century Spain to the 1970s, soon after the death of Francisco Franco. Now, I’m not a big history buff, and never studied much world history, so as I watched, I was a little vague on the political situation of Spain in the 1970s (turns out it was in a bit of a turmoil after Franco’s controversial 40-year dictatorship over Spain; for that matter, it turns out that opinions on Franco’s role still vary wildly). Luckily, the story is told clearly enough, through commentary, costumes, and props, that even if you have no idea who Franco was, you’ll still understand what’s happening and the general state of affairs: there’s a strong military presence in town, which the general populace seems to dislike, and Carmen’s friends are smugglers although presumably not bad guys, per se, but people who have chosen a dishonest life as a path to freedom from the military regime.
In general, I felt that the choice to set the opera in the 70s was a bold choice that brought new relevance to the story — and oh my gosh, the costumes! Roller skates, high-waisted bell-bottoms, wedge sandals, and all the polyester you could ever imagine. Seriously, hats off to costume designer Jessica Jahn. However, while the more contemporary setting made the story seem more relatable for a 21st-century audience in some ways, in other ways, it seemed a little out of place. To be fair, I was never in Spain in the 70s, but all the talk of honour and reputation seemed a little out of place, as did the hero-worship of a bullfighter as a celebrity on par with the biggest of movie stars. And while I know that violent crimes of passion absolutely still happen in 2015, the idea of stabbing someone to death — repeatedly — out of jealousy, somehow seems less tragic and more frightening when placed in a time period closer to my own.
In addition to the awesome, eye-catching costumes, I must mention the lighting. Designer Mark McCullough’s use of lighting is wonderful, but it’s really the use of shadows that was particularly inspired. The tall sets made the perfect background for long, dramatic silhouettes. Fantastic stuff.
I feel more than a little unqualified to comment on the singing, being someone who can only carry a tune if given a bucket in
which to put it. But it sounded wonderful to me, and the main characters had amazing stage presence; Rafael Davila* as Don José was impressive to watch in his change from righteous military officer to jealousy-crazed lover, and Nora Sourouzian* did an excellent job as the eponymous Carmen: quick, sultry, and saucy (and if you speak French, enjoy her French-Canadian accent!). I couldn’t take my eyes off Bergen Baker as Carmen’s friend Mercédés every time she came on stage, and not just because of her crazy bell-bottoms, but because of her attitude. Marita K. Sølberg* as Micaëla, Don José’s would-be wife, sounded beautiful, but her costume made her look a little stuffy and prudish, which made it hard for me to imagine Don José ever choosing her over Carmen, but perhaps that’s the point. (*some roles are performed by two different artists, depending on which night you go; see MN Opera’s website for details)
Lastly, I have to add that I thought it was bizarre that an opera set in Spain is sung in French; Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s libretto is beautiful but French has a different lilt to it than the more rhythmic Spanish. But then, Romeo & Juliet is set in Italy, and nobody went to see the movie Frozen and left asking why it wasn’t in Norwegian (Swedish? Made-up-Scandinavian-place-ish?), so why should this be any different? Sit back, admire the visual spectacle, and sink into the drama that is Carmen.
Carmen by Georges Bizet, with libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, produced by the Minnesota Opera, runs April 25-May 10, 2015 at the Ordway Center, 345 Washington Street, St Paul. Tickets are $25-200 at http://www.mnopera.org/season/2014-2015/carmen/#