Bizet’s Carmen at the Boston Lyric Opera
Music by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée
Boston Lyric Opera, September 30, 2016
The Boston Lyric Opera has left its long-time, unsatisfactory home in Boston’s Shubert Theater. This season each production will be mounted in a different space, and the Boston Globe reports that BLO has joined some other local theatrical groups to bid for ongoing use of the fine Colonial Theater (now owned by Emerson College) when it is restored and reopens in a year or so—seems an outcome to be wished for. Meanwhile, BLO has started its current season with Bizet’s Carmen in the Opera House on Washington Street, once home to Sarah Caldwell’s highly creative Opera Company of Boston, in recent years home of the Boston Ballet and site of a never-ending stream of very popular traveling Broadway musical productions. The Opera House is a grand space with good acoustics, a broad stage, sizeable orchestra pit, and adequate lobby space on two levels. It is good to see and hear opera staged here once again.
Calixto Bieito’s staging of Carmen, going back some years and widely traveled, here revived by Joan Anton Rechi, sets the opera in a contemporary military outpost (modern automobiles, cell phones and the taking of selfies) with hills and a border nearby to encourage smugglers. The production opens with soldiers being drilled and one man, apparently being punished, running big circles around the stage wearing only his white briefs and carrying a rifle, becoming more and more tired, finally collapsing prostrate, his shapely bottom lifted as for a sexual approach. Soon the cigarette factory girls—“insolent bitches” the soldiers call them as rendered in the English supertitles—emerge from work and sit dangling their bare legs across the front of the stage. Sexual stimulation, raw desire, brutality, coarseness, violence characterize this world, and Bieito keeps finding ways to reinforce it—beatings, nudity, trashy deportment all round—even Micaëla, the virtuous girl from home, when she has won Don José away temporarily from his lover, Carmen, by invoking his dying mother, leaves the stage giving the classic F*** You sign to Carmen with a big fist. Sometimes as cars rolled onto and around the stage, the occasional turning of headlights into the eyes of the audience made us feel sharp discomfort, a correlative for the vulnerability and violence of the world onstage. The adult and children’s choruses—cigarette girls, soldiers, smugglers, crowds in the streets—sang strongly and well, and were well choreographed, contributing a great deal to establish this production’s mood and atmosphere. Watching the procession for the bullfight at the beginning of Act IV, children and adults faced the audience at the front of the stage, in vivid motley street-wise costumes (Mercè Paloma), and challenged us as being part of this world, much like the car headlights turned our way.
Carmen (1875) is not a Romantic opera. It is rendered in a classic mode, going back to earlier French dramatic ideals and kin to the earlier operas of Verdi. Every mood and dramatic encounter is realized in an arresting melody and orchestral sound, briefly developed and resolved. (The efficiency and light touch of all this is what appealed to Nietzsche when he turned against Wagner for his Germanic “heaviness.”) Much depends on the vividness of the principal singers, to put across the dramatic point of the moment and to carry an identity across the variety of numbers and episodes. Jennifer Johnson Cano as the BLO’s Carmen—the Gypsy girl who loves whom she pleases—sang with an attractive, smooth voice, steady from bottom to top, and she was feisty and effective in the final scene with her abandoned and angry lover, Don José, insistently saying no to his entreaties to come back to him—the admirable “woman who says no,” virtually unique in opera, says feminist writer Catherine Clément in her impressive book on this art form. Ms. Cano’s voice is not large, nor in general is her stage presence, despite basically good acting and movement. I can imagine her quite effective in a smaller house, but the bigger theaters, like this one, ask for something more. At one point during one of the many ugly fights between men that Carmen’s presence seems to provoke, Ms. Cano gave a long look to the audience that conveyed the full tragedy of the world before us—bravo for that. Chelsea Basler as Micaëla sang with a somewhat quavery voice—no great attraction for Don José, the lover who left her. Michael Mayes as the torero Escamillo, for whom Carmen leaves Don José, made a strong first appearance with the famous “Toreador Song,” though his low notes were weak as compared to the middle and upper range; he was less impressive in the later scene where he confronts Don José at the smugglers’ camp. The really weak link was tenor Roger Honeywell as José, the soldier who falls for Carmen, releases her from arrest and goes to prison for it, follows her to join the smugglers, is abandoned by her, and in the end kills her. Honeywell is a good actor, and conveyed José’s anguish and inner conflict, at least visually. But he was weak in voice and uncertain of pitch in his opening scene with Micaëla, before he goes astray, and he never fully redeemed himself. He was best in his most explosive moments, emitting some fine piercing sounds, but never showed the splendor and beauty of voice this role calls for—a voice that must indicate his attraction for Carmen, his passion for her, and his suffering. David Angus led the orchestra in a well played, well paced account of the score for this production whose shocking look and bitter worldview leave more of an impression than the principals.