Carmen, an opera in four acts, with music by the French composer Georges Bizet, is set to a libretto written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, who used a novella by Prosper Mérimée as their inspiration. It was not particularly well received when it was first performed at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, in March 1875. Bizet made some revisions for the opera’s Vienna Court Opera premiere, scheduled for a few months later, but died suddenly at the age of 36, never knowing of his work’s great success there, or enduring fame as possibly the most popular and frequently performed of French operas. It reached the Metropolitan by 1884, and to date has been presented by that company alone over 1,000 times. The opera was first fashioned in the style of the opéra comique, with musical numbers separated by brief passages of spoken dialogue. The revision, with the dialogue turned into sung recitative with orchestration, is the “Grand Opera” version that has endured for well over a century, but the Pittsburgh Opera is using the original for this revival – quite the novelty in recent years; so much so that it is but a matter of time before the revision returns to favor. The very large audience at last night’s presentation gave the impression that they were expecting the better-known revision, and despite an excellent performance, applause had ceased before the final curtain had finished descending. Indeed, plaudits were slightly perfunctory throughout, except for a well-deserved outburst of enthusiasm for conductor Antony Walker as he took his place for the third act, and a briefly noisy demonstration at the final curtain call for one of the least effective singers.
The psychology of this drama with comic elements – an adequate analysis of the music, would require an entire volume. The work is one in which the “main character” depends on the cast. When Enrico Caruso sang the tenor role with the Metropolitan Opera Company on tour in San Francisco on the night of April 17, 1906, he would never know that just hours later the unread early editions of the burning city’s morning newspapers suggested that the opera should be renamed Don José. In the 1890s, when Emma Calvé was the reigning queen of “Carmens” in New York and elsewhere, one critic stated that, with her in the title role, a marionette for Don José would suffice. Last night was most decidedly a “Carmen” night. Like Gluck’s classic Orfeo ed Euridice, Carmen is one of the rare operas in which the mezzo-soprano voice is forefront and center at all times, while the soprano is relegated to the backseat – if not the trunk.
The first act takes place outside a cigarette factory in Seville. An assemblage of soldiers relaxes in the square, waiting for the changing of the guard while they observe and comment on the passersby. Micäela, a young peasant girl, enters to inquire after Don José. Moralès tells her that his fellow corporal is not yet on duty, and invites her to wait. She demurs, saying she will return. Don José arrives with the new guard, which is greeted and comically imitated by a crowd of street urchins. The factory bells chime, and the “cigarette girls” emerge to exchange flirtatious small talk with the men in the crowd. Carmen is the last to exit the factory, and sings the alluring “Habanera,” which tells of the untamable nature of love (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”). The infatuated men beg her to choose a lover, and after some teasing, she tosses a flower at Don José, who has been ignoring her and seems to distain her brazen insolence. Smoke break over, the women return to the factory, and Micäela reappears to give Don José a letter and a kiss from his mother (“Parle-moi de ma mère!”). He reads that his mother wants him to resign his post, return home, and marry Micäela, who shrinks back in embarrassment at this last bit of news. As Don José decides that he will comply with his mother’s wishes, screams are heard and the women rush from the factory in great excitement and agitation. Zuniga, the officer of the guard, is told that Carmen has gone after a co-worker with a knife. When confronted as to who started the skirmish, Carmen replies with mocking defiance and “Tra, la las.” Zuniga orders Don José to tie her hands while he prepares an arrest warrant. Now alone with Don José, Carmen enchants him with the “Seguidilla,” in which she sings of a night of dancing and passion with her lover, whoever he may be, in Lillas Pastia’s tavern. Confused but mesmerized, Don José agrees to free her hands, and as Carmen is being led away, she shoves her captor to the ground and runs off laughing. Don José is arrested for dereliction of duty.
In the second act, a month has passed, and Carmen and her friends, Frasquita and Mercédès, are entertaining Zuniga and other officers at Pastia’s Inn. Carmen seems pleased to hear of Don José’s release from detention. Outside, a chorus and procession announces the arrival of the matador, Escamillo. Asked inside, he introduces himself with the famous “Toreador Song” and zeroes in on Carmen, who seems none too impressed. Lillas Pastia hustles the crowds and the soldiers away so that he may close the inn. When only Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès remain, the smugglers Dancaïre and Remendado arrive and reveal their plans to dispose of some recently “acquired” loot (“Nous avons en tête une affaire”). Frasquita and Mercédès are willing to help them, but Carmen declines, stating she prefers to wait for Don José. After the smugglers leave, Don José arrives and Carmen treats him to a private exotic dance (last night, a highly erotically charged scene), but her song is entwined with a distant bugle call. When Don José says he must return to duty, Carmen mocks him, and he shows her that he still has the remnants of the flower that she threw at him in the square (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”). Unmoved, Carmen demands that he prove his love by running away with her and her friends. Don José refuses to desert, but as he prepares to leave, Zuniga enters looking for Carmen. He and Don José come to jealous blows, and are separated by the returning smugglers, who restrain Zuniga. Now faced with having attacked a superior officer, Don José has no choice but to flee with Carmen and the smugglers, running Zuniga through as a farewell.
By the third act, Carmen’s love for Don José is fading fast, and as they argue in the smugglers’ mountain encampment hideaway, she urges him to go home to his mother. Frasquita and Mercédès are reading cards, telling of their fortunes and fantasies of love and wealth. Carmen deals herself a hand that spells death for both herself and Don José. Micäela, dressed in novice habit, reappears with a guide, determined but fearful of encountering the woman who has reduced Don José to a disheveled, ragged wretch of a fugitive. Gunfire rings out and she flees for cover. Don José has given a warning shot to an intruder, who is Escamillo, still smitten and seeking out Carmen. The two come to blows, daggers drawn, but the smugglers separate them. Escamillo, thankful that his life has been saved, invites the crowd, and Carmen in particular, to his upcoming bullfight. He exits, and Micäela returns, begging Don José to return with her to his dying mother. The two flee, but not before Don José warns Carmen that the day will come when they meet again.
In act four, the action has returned to Seville, and opens with crowds cheering bullfighters as they make their way to the arena. Carmen arrives with Escamillo, but after he has made his way to the scene of upcoming carnage, Frasquita and Mercédès warn her that Don José has been seen in the vicinity. Carmen defiantly declares she fears no man. As she makes her way for the arena entrance, she is stopped by what is left of the once gallant Don José, and he begs her for the chance of starting a new life with him. She boldly declares that her love for him is dead, and as the crowds are heard cheering Escamillo, she breaks free and takes Don José’s ring from her finger and throws it to the ground. He pleads with her, knife drawn, but she once more scorns him and continues to struggle for freedom. He stabs her to death, and falls to his knees, screaming to be arrested for killing the woman he loves.
This final bit of action was one of several peculiarities in last night’s staging of the opera. The libretto distinctly states Carmen is stabbed, and Don José did indeed have a knife during the struggle. However, he rather gingerly – and amazingly quickly – strangled her to death. Another oddity came after the famous overture to the first act, when a drop rose to show Carmen standing motionless, staring out at the audience for several awkward moments as the music continued. She was then plunged into darkness, and the curtain rose on the opening scene. Nevertheless, as a whole, the opera was impressively and colorfully mounted, with some beautiful lighting effects, good costuming, adequate scenery, and a chorus and mass of supernumeraries that was somewhat awkward in the first act but improved greatly as the evening progressed. The urchins scampered and sang as well as children’s choirs generally do in operas, but in the first act in which they were a feature, some of the soldiers appeared to be wooden toys who had dropped out of a production of “The Nutcracker” by mistake, and it would not have been in their best interests to tangle with some of the cigarette girls, who could have snapped them like twigs.
The evening belonged almost exclusively to Rinat Shaham, the Israeli-born mezzo-soprano, who proved conclusively her well-deserved fame in the title role. She is a beautiful woman with a lovely figure, and a voice of velvety quality; always deep, dark and rich when needed, and rising to the higher passages of the part with ease and relatively no break between the registers. She acts the part to perfection, never overdoing things, and seems to have a carefully studied concept of the role, which too often is portrayed as simply cold-hearted and evil, while the human side of the gypsy who has been hardened by her lot in life is cast aside. Ms. Shaham displayed the character as many-dimensional, rather than one, and at all times was a great pleasure to listen to and observe through the entire opera, as her voice was as strong, fresh and secure at 11:30 as it had been when the curtain went up shortly after 8. Local opera lovers will want to take advantage of the remaining opportunities of hearing this wonderfully gifted singing actress. Her likes don’t often this way come, as the saying goes.
AJ Glueckert made his Pittsburgh Opera debut as Don José. His voice is a pure tenor of lovely, lyrical quality, if not possessed of an abundance of volume, and on more than one occasion, such as in the beautiful duet with Micäela in the first act, he sang quite well indeed. He by no means presented a romantic or dashing figure, and in acting and stage “business” he is rather routine and conventional. At times, his singing takes on these qualities as well, such as when the famous “Flower Song” was sung with a noticeable deal of caution.
Morgan Smith, in the role of Escamillo, also made his Pittsburgh Opera debut. He is a striking figure and made the most of the comparatively small role. On his entrance, it was to be feared that the music lay too low for his voice, but he quickly proved that was not to be the case. His rendition of the famous “Toreador Song” was a treat. He, too, at times was rather routine in action, and his manipulations of the matador cape did not cooperate as well as they should.
Jasmine Muhammad, who has done much fine singing in this city, last night took the small role of Micäela. She looked charming and sang the duet with Don José in the first act quite well, but in her only other opportunity of the evening, the beautiful aria in the third act, she was costumed unbecomingly and did not supply the smooth and sustained legato so necessary to make a success with this music. She acted the part with grace and the appropriate demeanor.
The remaining characters have not much to do, but what they did have was well looked after. Alex DeSocio, as Moralès, and Phillip Gay, as Zuniga, sang and acted their roles quite well, and Peter Kope, co-founder and Artistic Director of Attack Theater, made a surprise appearance in the speaking roles of the innkeeper, Lillas Pastia, and Micäela’s guide in the third act.
However, small parts in the hands of truly gifted artists often turn into some of the best features of operatic performances. This was demonstrated abundantly last evening by Adelaide Boedecker, as Frasquita, Corrie Stallings, as Mercédès, Adam Bonanni, as Remendado, and last, but by no stretch of the imagination, least, Dimitrie Lazich, as Dancaïre. The incredibly difficult quintet in the second act, which couples these four characters with Carmen, was brilliantly and effectively executed, and was one of the most enjoyable scenes of the evening. Lazich in particular was very effective, as in all he does; he effortlessly dominates any scene on which he appears, by way of his innate poise and presence, voice and acting ability. He never deliberately makes any effort to stand out – he simply does.
Antony Walker, as usual, conducted the orchestra with a sure hand and fine grasp of the score (although the beautiful prelude to the third act was tacked onto the fourth with jarring effect), even though the famous opening overture was taken at a tempo that suggested the players had a train to catch. The large group of instrumentalists played very well, despite an occasional slip in intonation on the part of a player or two. However, the orchestration of this work is strenuous and pitched frequently at a high degree of tension, so such things happen from time to time and are easily forgotten.
The opera will be repeated on March 24, 27, and 29 (the Sunday matinee), and patronage is highly encouraged.
For full upcoming production, cast, schedule and ticket information, please visit www.pittsburghopera.org
“The Artistic Team” for Carmen –
Marc Astafan, Stage Director/Choreographer; Allen Charles Klein, Set Designer; James Schuette, Costume Designer; Andrew David Ostrowski, Lighting Designer; James Geier, Wig & Make-up Designer; Glenn Lewis, Assistant Conductor; Mark Twarka, Chorus Master; James Lesniak, Associate Coach/Pianist; Jennifer Williams, Assistant Director; Teri Jo Fuson, Stage Manager. Photos by David Bachman Photography.