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Reflection: A stylish 'Carmen' and a signal moment

8:28 am on Sun, 05.20.12

Who needs another “Carmen”?

Well, all of us do. Even though it’s been eight years since we last saw this opera at the Loretto-Hilton Theatre, and despite the fact it was produced only once before then by the company, there was some grumbling along the lines of “Didn’t we just see ‘Carmen’?”

Well, no, we didn’t just, but what matters is perception, so the challenge to bring something better than just good was implicit. A decision was made to bring to the stage a quirky, stylish, idiosyncratic, imaginative and highly intelligent realization of this opera, one of the late 19th-century repertory’s most affecting masterworks.

Adam Diegel as José and Kendall Gladen as Carmen
Photos copyright Ken Howard | OTSL
Adam Diegel as José and Kendall Gladen as Carmen

In this production, three indelible artistic and philosophical strains are braided together.

One strand is the movies, particularly film noir, a filmmaking tradition born in Germany in the 1920s and embraced by Hollywood in the anxiety-soaked 1940s. Caricatured weekly on “A Prairie Home Companion,” it in fact has transcended nostalgia and has become respected, venerated even. This “Carmen” -- directed by Stephen Barlow, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the pit, conducted by Carlos Izcaray -- cleverly integrates rather than imitates elements of the film noir tradition, and although it gets laughs on one hand, its also provides a means toward plunging the action into turbulent, dangerous undercurrents.

Another strain is hypnotic and that is Bizet’s rapturously beautiful French music. Like a placid-seeming river, it moves along with such grace we are stunned to realize those invisible currents are pulling characters under; and regardless of their guilt or their innocence, the pull of the currents are so strong the principals either drown or are permanently, heart-breakingly scarred. As Carmen deals herself a deadly fortune in her blood-red cards, she and we come to the painful understanding that attempts to thwart destiny are futile for those who fly too ambitiously high and those who innocently enough get in the way.

For a glimpse of this production, check out www.opera-stl.org/multimedia/87/

The third strand is philosophical, and – as great, meaningful, rich and yeasty operas often do – “Carmen” delineates not just the tribulations of a select group of mortals but also speaks a universal message, one both timeless and directly related to its own historical moment. “Carmen” came to the stage of the Opéra-Comique in Paris only a few months before the composer’s death at the age of 36 in 1875. Before “Carmen,” he composed a dozen operas of varying lengths and quality, as well as incidental music, plus eight works for orchestra, and 50 or so songs and compositions for the piano.

Despite all its heat and passion, “Carmen,” received a chilly critical welcome at its première. That’s not surprising. The opera is a work of distinct modernity, an opera for our time, an investigation and revelation of our tendencies toward amorality and immorality, our carelessness and disregard for the physical and spiritual suffering of others. But for the late 19th-century audience in Paris, the fact that the star was not only a mezzo-soprano but a bad girl as well was shocking. The star should be a paragon, a soprano and a woman of virtue. And stories about such blatant sexual promiscuity and faithlessness were best kept off the opera house stage.

“Carmen” is saturated in conflict and in that condition is a reflection of its times. The opera was composed and produced soon after the settlement of the Franco-Prussian war, a conflict that brought Napoléon III’s Second Empire to its conclusion and occasioned the formation of the Third Republic. Of entirely greater consequence for all of human history, its end brought about the formation of the German empire. Before being brought to its conclusion by the Treaty of Frankfurt, the war, in which Bizet served, was calamitous. The number of casualties combined crept towards 1 million, the vast majority of the injured and dead belonging to the French.

The season

“Carmen” can be seen May 23, 25, 31, June 8, 10, 13, 16, 19 and 23

The second full-orchestral treatment of a Stephen Sondheim musical, “Sweeney Todd,” a dark tale of profit and vengeance in meat pies. It opens May 26.

The third in the company’s cycle of Mozart’s works, the comedy “Così fan Tutte" about how women are all the same, or are they? It opens June 3.

The American premiere of “Alice in Wonderland” by Korean-born composer Unsuk Chin and librettist David Henry Hwang, who wrote the musical "M Butterfly." It is not a kiddies' show. Middle-school students on up to those in their 100s should find it a fresh take on the Lewis Carroll story fascinating. June 13

Ticket prices begin at $25, with special pricing available for as little as $15 for students and active members of the military. For more information, visit www.ExperienceOpera.org.

Bizet, a loyal Frenchman to be certain, was less than fervent in his enthusiasm for the conflict, and one suspects he probably shared Wilfred Owen’s declaration that “dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori” is an old and pernicious lie. Bullfighting provided an easy metaphor for the war’s irrationalities, and the glorification of a form of grotesque ritual sacrifice.

The story, based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée, is a sad one and not difficult to follow, and the moral downward spiral of it begins almost immediately.

Carmen – all spirit and moxie when we meet her – reveals her character to be one we are supposed to hate, a daughter of Satan, a reckless woman who feels no responsibility for wrecking lives. Indeed, she embraces and revels in that poisonous role. We feel dismay as the naïve, rather innocent and not terribly bright Don José throws away his life in an obsessive pursuit of her. And we mourn for Micaëla, the true heroine of the piece, better by far than any of the characters with whom she shares the stage, and braver too, far more courageous than the blood-loving bullfighter Escamillo.

“Carmen” is innocence corrupted, a wallow of promiscuity and love affairs gone badly and sadly wrong. For us, it represents a larger and more consequential set of issues than loves gained and lost. It is about the consequences of bad decisions and bad behavior and our availability to blind, irrational passions. It has much to teach us about both vaingloriousness and goodness, and that is why we always need another “Carmen,” a raw and ageless portrayal of frailty, delivered to us with the death rattle of castanets.

But wait. In addition to its tough lessons, this particular “Carmen” gives us cause for celebration. The production introduced Opera Theatre’s 37th festival season and when the house lights came up the first of many surprises appeared: what appeared to be a movie screen with “Carmen” production information spelled out like movie titles. Breaths were held, and then released with delight. It was a bright-lights, cinematic opening for an opening night beyond anything I expected, and from reactions all around, beyond most audience members expectations as well.

It got better and better, and proceeded to punch us in our guts and our hearts with its several tragedies and to thrill us with the glories of its music. Once it was all over, in a town where even mediocre little-theater productions get standing ovations just to be nice, this “Carmen” was given an ovation that meant something, one that not only stood up but also arose and seemed to levitate as well.

Corinne Winters as Micaëla and Adam Diegel as Don José
Corinne Winters as Micaëla and Adam Diegel as Don José

“We love you Carmen!” was a cheerful chant that burst forth from the middle of the center section. That spontaneous, joy-filled response energized the entire house, and the appreciations went on and on, and the just-a-minute-ago, tough-as-nails gypsy woman, Carmen, sung by the dazzling hometown mezzo Kendall Gladen, was left gasping with emotion.

But rewind a little. Before the big Gladden ovation, the audience leapt first to its feet for the character who is the moral compass of “Carmen,” the dutiful, kindly Micaëla, sung exquisitely by soprano Corinne Winters. There are many musical moments to love in this opera. Mine is Micaëla’s haunting third act aria, “Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante” – I say nothing can frighten me. Winters sang it magnificently.

And so it went a celebratory cascade like the confetti that fell in Act IV. However, beyond the cheering, stamping, hollering and whistling ovation, floating over it like a descant, was a sensation that this production is to be reckoned gold-star significant in the already distinguished Timothy O’Leary Opera Theatre era, a signal moment in a tradition established in 1976 by founder Richard Gaddes. That tradition is daring. It embraces risk with fervor, and out of risk-taking produces brilliantly realized, challenging Opera Theatre productions, shows that sculpture themselves into the memory in high relief, not for one evening only, but for keeps.

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