Carmen sets out to shock: opera for millennials
Boston Lyric Opera stages memorable production of a popular favorite
Directed by Calixto Bieito
Starring Jennifer Johnson Cano, Roger Honeywell, Michael Mayes
Music by Georges Bizet; Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Boston Opera House
539 Washington St, Boston MA
Sept. 23, 25, 30, and Oct. 2
“Love” and “death” sound remarkably similar in French: l’amour and la mort. This near-homonymity is the thematic core of the opera Carmen. The titular main character is inexorably drawn to the two. She captures the heart of a naïve soldier, Don José, but valuing freedom above all else, she cannot remain constant for long. His obsessive love for her leads to her death.
Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano is a powerful, seductive Carmen. A friend, who accompanied me to the performance, observed that she sings quietly enough that you have to lean in to hear but not so quietly that the words are lost. Carmen is such a magnetic character, both musically and intrinsically, that those selected to play her lover, the soldier Don José (in this case, tenor Roger Honeywell) are inevitably overshadowed. However, although Cano plays a great Carmen, Elīna Garanča in Richard Eyre’s stunning production of Carmen remains unmatched.
It is the staging of this production that makes it memorable. Gone are the flowing skirts that adorn the Gypsy girls. Gone are the wonderfully choreographed group dance numbers at the bar “Lillas Pastia.” The stage is stark and sparsely decorated, but the use of dynamic props, like six fully-functional 1970s-era automobiles which are driven or pushed across the stage, stave off potential dreariness.
In standard Carmen productions, such as at the Met, Acts I and II are uplifting — we are shown a Carmen who is in the center of her microcosm, who feeds off being the center of attention and the object of desire. But in Bieito’s production, Carmen comes across as someone to be pitied. Yes, she is strong, but she is surrounded by loose, boozy women and vulgar soldiers in post-Franco Spanish North Africa. She is not the object of admiration, but of animalistic sexual desire, and she seems so very lonely. Perhaps this is Bieito playing devil’s advocate to Bizet’s romantic rendering of a Gypsy’s lifestyle.
Bieito’s Carmen is a tribute to Bizet’s original in a subtle way as well: in this production, musical numbers were separated by dialogue. I had never seen this in an opera, and it left me a bit befuddled until I did some research, but it turns out that this is the style of opéra comique, the genre in which the opera was originally written. Since the time Carmen was first staged, spoken dialogue became increasingly replaced by the recitative (sung ordinary speech), which then became the norm. Bieito foils expectations by reverting to the original style.
Clocking in at about three hours, with only a few main characters and a plot that is easy to follow, not to mention an extraordinarily catchy score and libretto, Carmen is the gateway drug of operas. Even so, opera as a modern art form has been struggling to overcome its reputation as the pastime of the elite or the pretentious.
In my experience, in America, the demographic in an opera house is so skewed that septuagenarians are serious contenders for belle of the ball. For those producing operas, this is an alarming occurrence. So what must the opera do to appeal to rising generations?
Darwinians would say, of course, that opera must evolve to suit its new environment, which is very different from that of its “golden age” of the mid-19th century.
Calixto Bieito’s new production, marking his U.S. opera debut, demonstrates that he is ready to serve as a catalyzing mutation. Conservative values are stripped away (in one scene, quite literally ‘stripped,’ when a soldier performs a dance number without a scrap of clothing on). Bieito does not shy away from explicit portrayals of sexual violence, vulgarity, and indecent exposure, although even these are mild by modern television standards.
Now, how did the audience respond to this upheaval of propriety? If one wants to gauge the general opinion of a piece, one’s best resource is the lady’s room during intermission. Opinions are like bladders – everybody has one. The appraisal of the first two acts of Carmen was bimodal: some absolutely loved it (this crowd was generally under 30 years old), and others shook their heads woefully and said this certainly wasn’t their “grandmother’s opera.” The irony is that when Bizet originally had his opera staged in 1875 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, the reaction of the traditionalists was similar, and he was devastated to the point that… well, you can read his biography.
The latter cohort probably reacted the same way upon seeing some audience members wearing flip-flops and T-shirts. I am not highbrow when it comes to clothing and I can appreciate the comfort of a good T-shirt as much as the next MIT student, but there is a time and place for everything.
Going to the opera (or the theater or the ballet) is an experience beyond just viewing the performance. It starts as you’re entering the opera house: being the opening night, the dress code was “Creative Black Tie” and there were some truly magnificent dresses and suits on display. The experience continues as you contort yourself to squeeze past the knees of your neighbors to reach your red, velvety seat. Then, while you’re admiring the frescoes on the ceiling and the chandeliers, the lights dim and the overture begins.
Bieito, in collaboration with Boston Lyric Opera and the San Francisco Opera, is bringing three more productions to Boston in the coming months. The next one, Greek, a retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, will open in November.