Isabel Leonard and Michael Fabiano (photo by Curtis Brown for Santa Fe Opera)
Where are we? We are sitting in the Santa Fe Opera's lovely theater, wishing we were being transported to Seville in the 19th c., the world created by Georges Bizet and librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (originally created by novelist Prosper Mérimée)--a world of gypsies, smugglers, and bull fights. But no, that is not going to happen. We can't tell where we are from a confusing set and ugly costumes. We are in the world of a misguided director who wants to tell a different story. Of our beloved Carmen, only the "romantic" obsession remains and the good girl/bad girl dichotomy.
We were inspired to do a search of our reviews of every Carmen we have ever written about. And there are dozens. Significantly, the last Carmen done by Santa Fe Opera was similarly egregious. The most affecting one we ever saw was performed by a small (now defunct) company in New York City. The most original one was presented by a psychoanalytic colleague whose concept it was to be interviewing Don Jose in prison, after the stabbing. His character was explored by means of flashbacks to various scenes of the opera. It was original and illuminating. If you are going to have a concept, it better be cohesive and show us something new about the characters. This production was about as interesting and as believable as Lucia in overalls in the rustbelt of the United States, as presented by the Metropolitan Opera.
If one closed ones eyes, which we frequently needed to do, one was treated to some superb singing and a glorious reading of the score by Maestro Harry Bicket. The music moved right along with big dramatic orchestrations, as in the overture, alternating with gentle pianissimo lyricism, as in the introduction to Act III.
Poor mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, drably dressed in jeans and dun colored top gave her all to make sense of the character. She possesses a magnificent instrument which she uses skillfully throughout the entire range. She clearly worked hard to fulfill the director's requirements and to tell us something new about the eponymous heroine. In the 19th c. there was something shocking and fascinating about a woman who marched to her own tune. Set in contemporary times, it's just old hat.
Tenor Michael Fabiano sounded just fine as Don Jose but was perhaps directed to be particularly awkward with his body movements, leading us to speculate that Don Jose had some rare ailment that contributed to his unbalanced mental state. His violence did not evolve gradually but was present right from his ungracious shoving of Micaëla as she tried to give him a kiss from his mother.
Soprano Sylvia D'Eramo scored vocally with her Act III aria. Dressed in overalls, backpack, and Keds, she looked nothing like an innocent country girl although she did her best to act the part, contrasting with Ms. Leonard's worldly wise mien.
Four apprentices delighted us with their performances, seemingly removed from the intensity of the main story. Soprano Magdalena Kużma's Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty's Mercédès made a fine pair and we enjoyed their card reading duet. Tenor Anthony Léon's Remendado and baritone Luke Sutliff's Dancaire brought Act II to vivid life. The quintet with Ms. Leonard resisting their blandishments was one of the vocal highlights of the evening.
Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel was put in the ambiguous position of portraying Escamillo as a bullfighter in authentic dress, and also some kind of entertainer in a saloon pretending to be a bullfighter. Nonetheless, we enjoyed his singing of the Toreador Song.
Bass-baritone David Crawford was effective as Zuniga; Apprentice David Lekeith Drone sang the role of Morales; Omen Thomas Sade took the non-singing role of the famed Lilias Pastia.
A terpsichoreally challenged female child was onstage so much, for no apparent reason, that we were not surprised at the muttering of the woman sitting next to me, muttering we choose not to repeat. These constant appearances were most resented when they occurred during the big arias. How unforgivably distracting! Perhaps she is the offspring of a big donor. Why was she holding her ears during the overture? Why was she prancing around stage making odd faux flamenco moves with her arms and swishing her skirt? Whatever the director had in mind was lost on every audience member we spoke with or overheard in the ladies room during intermission.
French director Mariame Clément obviously comes from the European régie theatre school. Silly us to think that opera is about singing that enhances logical story telling! Whatever happened to authenticity and honoring the intentions of the composer and librettist? We would beg directors to stop trashing the classics. Modern touches added to comedies are just misdemeanors but to ruin a tragedy is a felony.
Julia Hansen's set and costumes for Act I were not awful. Just a bunch of soldiers on one side and a fenced in area on the other side, enclosing a yard for the cigarette factory workers to take their breaks. But things got progressively worse. In Act II, there was something like a nightclub with what appeared to be a drag show onstage; but then appeared to be Frasquita and Mercedes in hideous garish costumes. And another smaller stage was wheeled on with Escamillo in full toreador costume singing his big aria.
Act IV was completely incomprehensible. At first, the chorus of onlookers were waving flags behind a wooden barrier. So, it's a bullfight and we had no problem using our imagination to recreate the parade of chulos, picadors, and toreros that were being sung about. But then the set became a garish amusement park with a ticket office with a sign reading "CAJA"--Spanish for cashier or box office--and the only sign that the action is supposed to be taking place in Spain. A lone merry-go-round horse witnessed the violence perpetrated by Don Jose on the complacent but defiant Carmen.
Not only were the characterizations impossible to fathom but the stage business frequently belied the text. Please don't sing about a rope and then produce handcuffs to restrain Carmen.
We could go on and on about the directorial misjudgment but we would prefer to use the space to once again applaud the excellent chorus of apprentices, directed by Susanne Sheston. The chorus has been a winning element throughout the season.
© meche kroop