|Ana Maria Martinez and Roberto De Blasio (photo by Ken Howard)|
The current trend in opera is "concept". Directors are falling all over themselves trying to make opera relevant, changing locations, changing time periods, doing all kinds of things to attract new audiences. We are not among those that appreciate this trend. Occasionally this fiddling works but more often than not the audience is left baffled. Such was the case last night at the Santa Fe Opera's Carmen; Bizet's masterpiece was updated to mid-20th c. and moved to somewhere on the Mexican-American border, although that was only revealed piecemeal. The time is ripe for an opera about illegal immigration and the plight of Mexicans but grafting that concept onto an opera that we adore in its original time and place seemed ill-advised.
Bizet's music trumps everything else and if you closed your eyes and listened to Rory Macdonald's apt conducting of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, you might have had a fine time. With your eyes open, you might have expected to be in Spain with vintage black and white films of bullfights projected onto the set. The picture of the dead bull might have made you wonder if this was meant to be symbolic of Don Jose's stabbing of Carmen in the final scene. Interestingly enough, that scene does take place in an arena-like area. But why was Carmen trying to escape through locked doors when she was resigned to dying?
Many other inconsistencies and questions about Stephen Lawless' direction distracted us from enjoying the music. Why were the girls of the tobacco factory behind bars? They were dressed in identical uniforms so one wondered whether they were meant to be in prison and given time in the yard for a smoking break. Why was Escamillo's entrance so tacky, passed out on a mechanical bull? Why was Micaela standing on the American side of a chain-link fence? We could go on and on about the inconsistencies and ill-conceived ideas.
Carmen is not just a factory-worker (if that is even true) but she and Frasquita and Mercedes don wildly colorful costumes (by Jorge Jara) as onstage entertainers in Lilas Pastias' tavern while the customers dance the lindy to Bizet's music! There is more coke-snorting than we would ever want to see onstage-- to no meaningful effect. Were the smugglers smuggling drugs or were they smuggling "wetbacks". Why are the "wetbacks" pushing the truck right up to the Border Patrol? Did we need to see a trashy hooker distracting the border guard so a few illegal immigrants could climb the chain-link fence?
Well, let us move on to what we did like about the production. Most of the video projections by Jon Driscoll served to open up the story in a cinematic way. The scene of Micaela tending to Don Jose's critically ill mother gave us some insight into their relationship. The scene of Micaela and Don Jose attending his mother's funeral showed us that Micaela still had some affection for him; she made sidelong glances meaningful.
Benoit Dugardyn's set design was simple enough not to interfere and was flexible enough to create the soldier's locker room, a prison, a bullfight arena, ramparts and a background for projections. Pat Collins' lighting was sometimes effective, creating shadows that highlighted the action; at other times the light fell in the wrong place and the action was cast into darkness.
As Carmen, soprano Ana Maria Martinez created a character that had very little by way of redeeming qualities. Perhaps it is only that we prefer the role to be sung by a mezzo-soprano but her voice seemed uneven through the wide range Bizet wrote; her voice improved as the evening wore on. Her acting was forceful but appeared to be based on something that she or the director considered to be sexy. The sexiness did not seem to come from within but rather was based on gyrations and cliched mannerism.
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