Santa Fe Opera’s updated ‘Carmen’: Too close for comfort?

Escamillo's arrival in Santa Fe Opera's
Escamillo's arrival in Santa Fe Opera's "Carmen." (Credit: Ken Howard)

SANTA FE, N.M.,August 10, 2014 – Even those who profess not to like opera generally can’t resist the music from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” Chock full of irresistible tunes and exotic, authentically Spanish intervals and rhythms (even though they’re all delivered in French), and bigger-than-life characters, this timeless musical tale of love and revenge is made even spicier by its beautiful, aggressive heroine whose fearlessness and implacable will would put most of today’s toughest feminists to shame.

Building on Prosper Mérimée’s lurid but realistic story of gypsy smugglers and down-and-outers, “Carmen” also abandons the usual operatic world of kings, queens, lords and tyrants, focusing instead on how society’s underside managers to survive and even at times thwart the system that’s stacked against them. It was more than a bit shocking for many in the late 19th century when it debuted to initially mixed reviews.

But times change, and Carmen is a familiar figure now, perhaps not so shocking anymore. Which is why the Santa Fe Opera’s new production of “Carmen,” directed by Stephen Lawless, decided to try a new approach. Updating the scenario closer to our own times, this production is set not too far south of the U.S. border—somewhere in Mexico—during what would appear to be the early- to mid-1960s.

Carmen and smugglers.
Ana María Martínez’ sultry Carmen (seated in truck cab, center) and fellow smugglers, parked just outside the U.S. border. (Credit: Ken Howard)

Instead of smuggling tobacco and other illicit goods and luxuries, Carmen and her pals are involved in smuggling cocaine and other illegal drugs, and perhaps a few illegal immigrants as well. A good portion of the opera’s second half takes place behind the chain link fence of an official U.S. border crossing—perhaps a bit too much, as the tall, obtrusive fence obscures a bit too much of the action as viewed by the audience.

While this reviewer tends not to be overly fond of opera “updates,” however, this one tends to work for the most part, restoring in many ways the shock value of Bizet’s original musical drama within the context of our own century and country. But, given that opera productions are scheduled and designed well in advance of their performance, the company likely could not have imagined just how amazingly prescient their re-imagination of an operatic classic would turn out to be.

To risk stating the obvious, the real-life Mexican-American border situation has reached a boiling point once again this summer, with thousands of unattended children and more than a few Central American gang members streaming across the U.S. border nearly unimpeded, doubtless with plenty of controlled substances hidden away in random caravans.

To see a popular opera actually performed in a U.S. border state in the current environment seemed more than a little eerie, more than a bit like life imitating art. Or perhaps the other way around.

Carmen, smugglers plot next heist.
Carmen (Ana María Martínez, seated center) and fellow smugglers plot their next heist. (Credit: Ken Howard)

In addition to its riffs on our current times and politics, this production of “Carmen” also takes some liberties with other classic scenes, most notably the action that goes down in what’s updated to be Lillas Pastias’ cabaret-cantina in this edition.

What’s not effective is the cramped staging of this scene’s popular song and dance music (“Les tringles des sistres tintaient”). Carmen and her pals Frasquita and Mércèdes come across visually here a bit like a South of the Border version of Gladys Knight and the Pips. Fortunately, the ensemble singing was quite good.

Another earlier production miscue involved Bizet’s appealing first-act street scene during which a platoon of singing, taunting urchins march in with the changing of the guard. For whatever reason, the usually good-sized kids’ chorus was reduced to just a few youngsters, all of them initially hidden inside a few trash dumpsters before emerging for their gig. Strange.

On the other hand, although it probably annoyed some, the grand arrival of Escamillo at Lillas Pastias’ club, passed out drunk and rolled in on a mechanical bull by a few of his confrères was original and surprisingly funny, at least for this reviewer.

Escamillo's arrival in Santa Fe Opera's "Carmen."
Escamillo’s arrival in Santa Fe Opera’s “Carmen.” Carmen (Ana María Martínez) watches with interest from the bleachers, perched under the letter “E”. (Credit: Ken Howard)

The flashing neon “ESCAMILLO” sign in the background was a bit over the top, but still gave the scene a weirdly Vegas quality that seemed oddly appropriate. Even in the original, Escamillo’s swaggering over-confidence is a bit much. This version cuts him down to a more realistic size while not really reducing his impact on the scene.

All of which gets us down to the actual singing in this production, which I found to be quite good most of the time.

Ana María Martínez proved a sultry, worldly, demanding Carmen in her opening performance. A soprano with a substantial range, she easily navigated this mezzo role, emphasizing its darker, more mysterious hues.

As her hapless lover, Don José, Roberto De Biasio took a decent stab at one of the more thankless tenor roles in Romantic Era opera. His solo moments made the most of his sweet and sincere tenor instrument, making his otherwise well-known wishy-washy character seem almost appealing for a time, at least before the tempestuous Carmen throws him aside for Escamillo.

Carmen (Ana María Martínez ) and Don José (Roberto De Biasio).
Carmen (Ana María Martínez ) and Don José (Roberto De Biasio) don’t exactly hit it off the first time at the cigarette factory. (Credit: Ken Howard)

What Ms. Martínez and Mr. De Biasio did seem to lack, at least during the performance we attended, was that initial spark of fire and romance, a key ingredient that needs to be present if we’re to understand their brutal break-up later in the opera. Nonetheless, their singing couldn’t really be faulted.

One fellow who did add some fire to the proceedings was Kostas Smoriginas’ Escamillo. Once his associates sobered him up a bit at Lillas Pastias’, he delivered an enthusiastic, if a bit drunken “Toreador Song” with great enthusiasm—not perhaps the best we’ve heard, but certainly in keeping with his somewhat dodgy character in this production.

In later scenes (when his character was a bit more sober), Mr. Smoriginas also revealed the kind of musical and acting chops that made his appeal to Carmen seem much more real.

The genuine delight of the evening was Joyce El-Khoury’s Micaëla. Although some critics have found Micaëla’s musical moments to be somewhat conventional when compared to those of Carmen, they are, in fact, some of the most touching music in this opera.

After all, it’s pretty clear early on, at least to the audience, that José should have stuck with his home-town good girl rather than pursuing the callous Carmen who’s clearly nothing but trouble. Ms. El-Khoury brought out her character’s inherent sweetness and appeal with a light, silvery soprano voice that could melt even the hardest heart, particularly when she delivered her touchingly brave aria “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante” in the opera’s mountain scene.

We’ve had the good fortune of seeing Ms. El-Khoury locally in a Castleton Festival production where she also impressed, and we believe she’s a young singer who has a fine career ahead of her. Her appealingly nuanced performance as Micaëla in Santa Fe emphasizes the point.

Smaller roles were handled well by the cast, particularly the roles of Carmen’s fellow female smugglers Frasquita (Amanda Opuszynski) and Mercédès (Sarah Larsen).

While Stephen Lawless’ direction was adequate, it was at times uninspired, although he did succeed, most of the time, in getting his singers front and center—with the exception of set designer Benoit Dugardyn’s chain link fence, which was not Mr. Lawless’ fault.

Orchestra and chorus under conductor Rory Macdonald sounded crisp, vigorous and full giving the entire production the richly late Romantic feel so necessary to provide the dramatic sweep this opera always needs.

While this Santa Fe Opera production of “Carmen” might not please all, and while its imperfections tend to be quite noticeable, it is, on the whole, startlingly original, bravely performed, surprisingly provocative and above all a refreshing but still highly musical take that serves to refresh an old favorite for our own contentious times.

Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of 4 stars)

Santa Fe Opera’s production of “Carmen” runs through August 23. For tickets and information visit the Santa Fe Opera’s web site.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17