Glimmerglass’s “Carmen” Loves Out Loud

The Glimmerglass Festival is presenting a sharp new staging of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, which still has the power, passion and audacity to confound and inspire nearly 150 years after its debut in Paris in 1875. The production marks the directorial debut of Denyce Graves, who made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Carmen in 1995 and went on to play the role for many years in many different productions at opera houses around the world. These productions took all manners of approach to the story, and left her feeling empowered like no other character she had played.

Carmen is by far the most enduring and popular work by Bizet, with its indestructible melodies of “Habanera” and “Toreador Song”, but the reception to the work on its premiere was decidedly mixed. Although the music was greatly admired, the book by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (adapted from the Prosper Mérimée novel) depicting this impulsive woman and her loves was denounced as “obscene” and “immoral”, and the title character was called “a cynical harlot.”

Yazid Gray, Briana Hunter/Karli Cadel

Carmen tells of a Romani factory woman who is arrested for stabbing a coworker by Don José. She flirts and escapes from her jailer which sends her into a life of smuggling, and him to a jail sentence for allowing his prisoner to escape. José, upon his release from prison, eventually finds her but she has fallen in love with Escamillo, a toreador.

This production has a brief prologue whose meaning escaped me – the stage is opened up to a town square filled with merchants, children playing, working women and police in paramilitary gear. The evocative set design was by Riccardo Hernández, modern colorful costumes by Oana Botez and lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker and Robert Wierzel. The tall walls have a blasted, post-industrial feel not unlike the besieged Ukranian factories seen on the nightly news. Upstage is a sliding factory door where the women enter and exit from their cigarette factory jobs. Twice, in moments that evoked the eternal, the entire wall lifts into the flies revealing the women’s shadows on a bright cyclorama upstage.

The police are more of an occupying presence than a protective service, and indeed in Ms. Graves director’s notes, she describes how she is telling the story through the lens of Romani culture where the only people who go where they live have authority over them and are in confrontation with them. “Inhabitants are subject to racism, discrimination, and persecution. Limitation and internal frustration are ripe and play out in our production of Carmen.”

Richard Ollarsarba/Karli Cadel

Striding into this powder keg is Briana Hunter who dominates the stage by force of nature, sashaying forward forcefully, always asserting herself. Her feline strut demands attention; later she will be dancing on top of a table or bathing herself with a wet cloth running it along her bare thigh or neck and chest. Her arresting physical presence is a strong complement to her voice as she sings the “Habanera”: “Love is a rebellious bird that nobody can tame.” The voice is as clear, strong and persuasive as the physical life proclaiming to all that she is free to love when and who she pleases.

Don José (Matthew Pearce) is the man summoned to arrest her, only to lose her in captivity and be sentenced to prison himself. If she rises through the course of the opera, he descends. He is initially smitten receiving her attentions with a proffered flower, then her jailer and eventually her pursuer and destroyer. It was announced before the Tuesday matinee that Matthew Pearce from the Young Artists Program would be filling in in the role. Pearce made a very persuasive Don José from his opening moments, to his exquisite aria professing his love, to his harrowing anger and need to dominate and control at the end. He was rewarded with extended ovations, far greater than mere welcoming politeness.

Also scoring rending portrayals are Symone Harcum as Micaela with a piercing prayer, and the swaggering Richard Ollarsaba as the toreador Escamillo, who Carmen falls for. Sergio Martinez was another understudy who went on Tuesday as Zuniga and had a preternatural command in the role. The company was very alive and the public scenes in the square, at Lillas Pastia’s, and at the bullfight had great energy and interest. The orchestra under the conduction of Joseph Colaneri was superb, rousing in its anthems and delicate to the fragility of the characters’ pleas from the heart.

Richard Ollarsaba/Karli Cadel

Carmen is nearly 150 years old and yet her assertive insistence on her freedom to love as she chooses still upsets and infuriates community’s norms. This Carmen hits all the notes to celebrate, venerate and preserve this rebellious spirit.

Through 8/21 @ The Glimmerglass Festival


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