Knife fights, hair-pulling, crotch punches, booze and cigarettes — this is the menu for an evening in Seville. The San Antonio Opera opened its 12th season last weekend to the largest audience in its history with Georges Bizet’s Carmen.
It’s easy to forget how many classic numbers come from this 125-year-old opera. Before curtains-up, an energetic prelude announced an evening of spectacle, debauchery, and what turns out to be perplexing drama. The passionate music and Carmen’s erotic appeal connect the audience to the story on a visceral level. But compared to the tragic fates of other leading ladies, Bizet’s character motivations are challenging to dissect, much less to perform.
In a town square in Seville, cigarette-smoking girls in push-up bodices saunter across stage and lounge in the most unladylike positions. Out comes Carmen (Audrey Babcock), working the men with her aria, “Habanera.” Babcock’s voice is sultry and pillowy, her movements as alluring as they are comic. With little effort, she seduces a sensible but misguided corporal, Don José (Michael Wade Lee).
José’s character is maddening: first he loves Carmen, then the perky and demure Michaëla (Sandra Lopez), then back to Carmen. Lee’s straightforward performance is clean and solid but isn’t fiery enough to justify this unthinking flip-flop. In a brief moment of clarity, and at his dying mother’s request, he decides to marry Michaëla. Wade and Lopez’s duet, “Parle-moi de la mère,” is made of sweet harmonies and ends with an even sweeter kiss, but if this touching number is supposed to make his infidelity heartbreaking, it doesn’t quite deliver.
Soon after, a fight to end all fights breaks out. Carmen tackles another girl, and the ensuing chaos is straight from Jerry Springer. Girls gut-punch one another and dunk soldiers’ heads into fountains. Special kudos go to Fight Choreographer Andrew Heinrich for these scenes and for the intensity between our leading lady and the corporal. Carmen is outed as the one responsible for the violence, and José detains her. Carmen seduces him into letting her escape, and Babcock plays the comedy and cunning with great skill.
After José is released from prison for aiding the villain, Carmen’s true colors surface as she involves him in a smuggling deal. She’s moved onto her next lover, a suave Escamillo (Franco Pomponi), who’s won her affections as the heartthrob bullfighter (and the audiences’, too. The ladies were all atwitter.) Babcock really captures what is so infuriating about this gypsy girl: Is she nothing but a user and a scam artist? Does she deserve a second chance, or does that mean we’ve fallen for her wiles, too?
Dramatically, the tricky part comes in Acts III and IV. José grows so desperate for Carmen’s love that he stays with the band of smugglers long after she spurns him. Innocent Michaëla follows him and sings a longing, harrowing aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante.” Then, in contrast to the gravity of the situation, two coquettes (Kelly Balmaceda and Jennifer Trammel) read tarot cards to their advantage in a delightful, comic duet.
All the elements were in place for Carmen’s fall to be devastating and tragic: orchestra and conductor (Enrique Patrón De Rueda) delivered an unrelenting score with energy and gusto; the costumes were rich; the St. Mark’s Children’s Choir and the flamenco dancers were vibrant.
But when it came time for Carmen and José to face off, and ultimately for them to die by their folly, the ending fell flat. The program notes even acknowledge that in order for the finale to feel justified, the audience must be convinced of the duo’s passion in the first act. This isn’t to speak poorly of the actors. Instead, it was a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts.
But if the San Antonio Opera’s Carmen didn’t earn marks for character development, it certainly did for grand presentation, artistry, and world-class singers. •
The San Antonio Opera’s 2008-09 season continues November 25 & 26 with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado follow in the spring. Full season info at saopera.com.
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