The battle lines are drawn. On the one side there are the opera snobs who label “Carmen” as that “chestnut.” On the other, there are the thousands who fill halls when “Carmen” plays. The beautiful and melodic score, and the dramatic (and not too preposterous) story pulls audiences in. For many it may be the only opera they will ever see, or maybe, having gotten their feet wet, they may even return for something more adventuresome. That is how patrons are developed. Demand has caused LAOpera to add an extra performance, evidence enough that there is no reason for Carmen to retire to her knitting.
So let us get down to the business of the current production at the Chandler, an import from the Teatro Real, Madrid. Sadly, it is not an inspired production. The sets and costumes are serviceable, but come up short on imagination. A scene change in Act III, is interminable. Aren’t we there for the music and the spectacle, you cry. True, true. As always, you can count on James Conlon for flawless, masterly support of the singers. Ana Maria Martinez’ voice embraces both the sultry and defiant tones of Carmen. Alexander Vinogradov embodies the swashbuckling bravado of Escamillo, the toreador. They and the flamenco dancers are the highlights of the production. The LAOpera Chorus and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus definitely pull their weight.
Are you hearing a “but” in this narrative? Sorry to report, you are right. Suspension of belief is always a challenge in opera, but Riccardo Massi’s Don Jose strains the imagination as a romantic hero. Little chemistry exists between his character and Martinez’s Carmen. For her part, as lush as her voice is, and as attractive as she is, Martinez is oddly stiff. Maybe better for momma’s boy Don Jose to go with Micaela (Amanda Woodbury) back to their town and live in a house near his mother with the Spanish equivalent of a picket fence. Los Angeles has seen more vibrant Don Jose’s than this, perhaps Brandon Jovanovich will perk things up when he takes over the role for the last 3 performances.
I suspect some of the blame rests on Ron Daniels’ direction. Ana Maria Martinez presents as someone fully capable of delivering a more physical performance. There was a time when it was enough to stand on the stage and sing. No longer. Daniels seems to also hold back on the expected scruffiness of the gypsy encampment, and the probable poverty of the women from the cigarette factory. “Carmen” is a story that demands letting loose. It is a story that pre-dates the suffragette movement but alludes to the freedom women would be openly seeking just a few years hence.
There is no reason to abandon “Carmen” to the chestnut pile. Even with my objections to this production it is still a joy to listen to. The proof is how quickly the three act, three-and-a-half-hour opera passes. Hopefully next time the LAOpera decides to feature “Carmen” they will seek out a more vibrant production. Carmen will always hold a special place in my heart. It was the first opera I was taken to and definitely whet my appetite for more.