First, the piece itself: Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera boasts some of the most seductive and adhesive music ever written for the stage—it’s all hooks from first bar to last. It boasts a whistle-able musical idea around every corner, gripping set pieces from emotionally expansive and unreserved arias to grand choruses, and sparkling, transparent orchestration that provides its own allure. I guarantee you’ll recognize at least three of the tunes, even if you have zero experience with opera, and many more will probably sound familiar.
In a genre notorious for convoluted plots, Carmen’s is clear-cut, almost unprecedentedly: Soldier Don Jose falls for the passionately independent Carmen, but they’re pulled in opposite directions—he by Micaela, a young woman from back home (who adroitly plays the mom-misses-you card) and she by the glamorous bullfighter Escamillo, with whom she hooks up when Jose gets too clingy. Tragedy ensues.
You also need to see it because of what Seattle Opera, in a production directed by Paul Curran, is doing with it. Carmen has been open to criticism for perpetuating the femme-fatale stereotype, especially problematic here considering its heroine is commonly identified as a “gypsy,” which adds racism to sexism: Carmen is the other in two senses, and thus doubly dangerous. (The libretto, by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, uses the euphemism “bohemien,” rendered in English as “Bohemian” in Jonathan Dean’s sharp and witty supertitles.)
But this production, which opened Saturday night (May 4) and runs through May 19, provides an object lesson in how to get around this. The key is simply how the leads approach their characters—and in Ginger Costa-Jackson and Frederick Ballentine, Seattle Opera has the most real, most convincing Carmen and Jose I’ve ever seen. (Zanda Svede and Adam Smith takes the roles in the production’s alternate cast, and Ballentine, unbelievably, stepped in for ailing tenor Scott Quinn on just a few days’ notice.)
What difference does this make? This opera’s sexual politics become the more untenable, of course, the more it’s suggested that Carmen in any way deserves her fate. This production makes it clear that the more Carmen is played as a relatable person and less as a symbolic archetype, the less culpable she seems for “making” Jose snap. Here, his emotional collapse, from Act 1’s Boy Scout to Act 4’s demented killer, is not played as something that Carmen does to him; not every Carmen I’ve seen makes so shrewd a distinction. No victim-blaming here: SO’s Carmen is a piece about one man’s pathetic inability to deal with a strong, self-determining (as opposed to callously manipulative) woman, and the destructiveness that results.
It’s a gorgeous production, too. Gary McCann’s costumes and billboard-dominated set seem to place the action around 1950 and possibly in Cuba. He reinvents Escamillo as James Dean (or Andrew Dice Clay if you’re feeling ungenerous), decked out in leather jacket, white T and dungarees. Rodion Pogossov was engaging in the role, though not quite enough to distract me from disbelieving that a star matador, the proudest of men, would ever appear in public dressed like that. Vanessa Goikoetxea deployed her strong soprano to reveal what’s really under Micaela’s timid exterior, and, after her Act 3 aria, earned the night’s loudest ovation for it. All in all, it’s SO’s most thoroughly successful show since last summer’s dazzling Porgy and Bess, and I encourage you not to miss it.
Times and prices vary. McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St.; 206.389.7676; seattleopera.org