Washington National Opera opens its 60th season with Georges Bizet’s iconic verismo opera, Carmen, directed by E. Loren Meeker. Arguably the most popular work in the operatic repertoire, Carmen is a wise choice to start the season with. With its timeless tale of passion gone wrong and a memorable score full of the classical equivalent of ear worms, Carmen is eminently accessible, appealing to the seasoned opera goer and the virgin alike.
Carmen first premiered in 1875 at the Paris Opera Comique, a venue that featured works far more akin to American musical theatre than grand opera. Carmen was Bizet’s attempt to bridge the gap between the genres, setting spoken dialogue against traditional operatic arias in a bloody tale of lust and murder based on Merimee’s novel of the same name, but it was not well received. It wasn’t until a remounting of the work in 1883 that Carmen achieved the popularity it has enjoyed ever since.
The opera follows Carmen, a flamboyantly sensuous gypsy whose passionate nature ultimately leads to her downfall. The capricious Carmen knows men find her irresistible and uses her powers of attraction to maneuver among the soldiers garrisoned in Seville. It is there that the hapless Don Jose, engaged to his hometown sweetheart, Micaëla, becomes the latest victim to her wiles. Carmen, the equivalent of a modern day gun moll, manages to seduce Jose and convince him to join her nomadic life with the other gypsies and contrabandistas in the mountains of Seville. But Carmen’s interest in Jose is short lived, as she soon falls for famed toreador, Escamillo. Having allowed Carmen to ruin his life, Don Jose kills Carmen in a jealous rage.
Washington National Opera’s production emphasizes the immediacy of the verismo – or ‘real life’ – aspects of the story, with sets and costumes, designed by Michael Yeargan and Francios St-Aubin respectively, evocative of Marco’s Spain. The production is in French with English subtitles and uses spoken dialogue rather than recitative. Fanny Ara and Timo Nuñez dance gypsy-style flamenco, choreographed by Sara Erde, during the overture and entre act score, adding to the Spanish flavor and the immediacy of this tale of passion run amok.
In the title role, mezzo soprano Géraldine Chauvet is a taunting temptress. Her Carmen is a little less femme fatale and a bit more “girls just wanna have fun,” with all her machinations simply part of the game she’s made of her life. She craves freedom – freedom to live how she wants, love whom she pleases, and the freedom to change her mind. But ultimately, she cannot escape the consequences brought on by her capricious nature. Chauvet’s sumptuous lyric vocalism is reminiscent of the great Rise Stevens. Her performance of the Gypsy Song, “Les tringles des sistres tintaient ,” was especially impressive, both for her singing and for her wonderful dancing and her rendition of “Habanera” was delivered with great emotion.
Soprano Jacqueline Echols’ Michaëla is not the passionless goody-two-shoes so frequently portrayed, but rather a good-hearted country girl whose pure affection is no match for Carmen’s masterful manipulation. Her shimmering rendition of “je dis que rein ne m’evoupente” reflected a spiritual purity in this character.
Tenor Rafael Davila brings believable passion if not quite the vocal heft usually associated with the role of Don Jose. Dramatically convincing, he makes the jilted lover turned murderer more sympathetic than pathetic, particularly his performance of the Flower Aria, “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée.”
Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov is a robust Escamillo; his rendition of the “Toreador Song,” “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre,” was full of bravado and confidence. Bogdanov’s performance leaves little doubt as to how the bullfighter could turn Carmen’s head. And though playing a smaller role, Kenneth Kellogg is a charismatic standout as the lieutenant, Zuniga.
Nearly every song includes the ensemble, and under the direction of Chorus Master Steven Gathman, WNO’s chorus is equal to the task. Within the ensembles, though, the men’s’ chorus in particular is to be commended for their exquisitely intelligible French diction. And the return of the children’s chorus is a delightful and welcome addition, truly a highlight of the production. Conductor Evan Rogister leads the WNO orchestra with enjoyable enthusiasm, and the orchestra itself is wonderful.
The colorful sets are filled with passionate performers and musicians who bring this opera to life. This talented cast transcends the strict morality of their characters, making them human, flawed, and sympathetic, and ultimately creating an even more moving show out of an already timeless story.
Washington National Opera’s Carmen is a vibrant production that is not to be missed.
Running Time: Three hours, with one 20-minute intermission.
Carmen plays through October 3, 2015 at Washington National Opera performing in The Kennedy Center Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, 1-800-444-1324, or purchase them online.
‘Carmen’ at Washington National Opera (Cast 1-9/19/15) by Jessica Vaughan on DCMetroTheaterArts.