If you live in a city with an opera company, you’ll never have long to wait before you have an opportunity to see Carmen. And usually, that’s a good thing. There’s a reason why Carmen enjoys such unwavering popularity: dynamite scene follows catchy tune follows dynamite scene, there are very few lulls in the action, the sexual undercurrent (overcurrent?) is potent, and Carmen herself is one of the most formidable characters in the repertoire.
Also, its depiction of male-female relationships is a lot closer to how we as modern audiences understand them. The love from first sight until death yours forever most beautiful woman in the world I’ll kill myself if I can’t be with you attitude that characterizes a lot of the operatic repertoire – Verdi, I’m looking at you – can seem naive and one-dimensional to an audience accustomed to more complex relationships. Carmen, however, gives us a “love story” where passions ebb and flow; where lovers are alternately kind, cruel, and manipulative; where sex is a concrete and foreground presence rather than a subtext; where love comes into conflict with career and family and it isn’t immediately obvious that love should come first. I was struck for the first time by a moment in the last act where Carmen tells Escamillo that she loves him more than she’s ever loved any other man. It’s possible she tells that to all the men, of course. But that the librettist didn’t even bother to pretend that Don Jose was Carmen’s grand amour, that her most passionate romance might be with a minor character, struck me as key to what makes Carmen so different from other operas.
Even Don José fits in with conventional modern ideas of the kind of man who would murder his ex in a jealous rage: shy, repressed, fraught relationship with his mother, low-ranking in the world, and generally a bit of a loser with masculinity issues. The Freudian angle on the Act I José/Michaela love scene practically spins itself: It starts with parle-moi de ma mère and the culminating kiss is spoken of by both parties as “a kiss from mom”. Carmen seems to be his first real brush with adult sexuality, and it soon turns out he’s in over his head. I was wondering during the production if it wouldn’t be more interesting if instead of Michaela (who is vapid as a love interest and too obvious a foil), José’s mom was actually a character; but then she’d have to be a contralto and what’s an opera without a soprano role?
Now to the COC production itself. This is the third time I’ve seen Carmen on stage, and the second time I’ve seen this particular production (apparently I’ve been going to the COC long enough now to see old productions come around again). With operas I’ve seen a couple of times before, what I look for in a production is whether it reveals something new about the opera. And this production passed the test, mostly due to leading lady Rinat Shaham. She’s got a sumptuous voice and strong stage presence, and also cleavage. Previous Carmens have disappointed me in the second half of Act II – the scenes between Carmen and Don José at Lilas Pastia’s – but she managed to pull off the blend of lust, cunning, anger, and exhilaration that the scene demands. After seeing one review complaining that her portrayal was “tawdry”, I was a little worried that the production would cheat by giving us signifiers of sexiness like bayonet-humping and lap dancing rather than the real deal. There’s a difference between pulling reality-tv-inspired look-how-hottt-I-am moves and conveying actual desire. I was impressed by how well Shaham managed to radiate sexuality without sacrificing the strength and dignity of the character.
Bryan Hymel was less impressive as Don José, and his voice had a nasal, fluttering quality that was unappealing to me. But he managed to generate considerable vocal force at the key moments. Paul Gay as Escamillo could have stood to be a bit more alpha-male.
The setting was updated to sometime in the early 20th century (the 30′s?) but honestly, the difference amounted to a costume update and was generally inconsequential. The production lacked visual interest; but I tend to prefer more highly stylized productions over those that go for realism.
One detail I particularly liked was in the final scene. Carmen, after having been thrown to the floor, throws Jose’s ring at him; and it’s the moment when he’s supposed to finally lose it and stab her. But this time, he didn’t. He backed off, turned away from her, put his hands in his head. After a moment, Carmen gave a relieved little laugh – all that bluster for nothing – and calmly got back on her feet, brushed herself off, and headed for the door. Of course she didn’t make it back outside. Cheap horror-movie trick? Sure. But it jolted me out of my expectations of how that scene is supposed to play out, and that’s the kind of thing that makes a third run-around with Carmen worthwhile.