• Daniela Mack (Carmen) and Evan Hughes (Zuniga)
    © Photo by Ken Howard

Carmen, Santa Fe

The Santa Fe Opera goes for political edginess in this re-imagined take on Bizet's tale of love and jealousy and death.

By Georges Bizet

Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (based on the novella by Prosper Mérimée)

Conducted by Rory Macdonald

Directed by Stephen Lawless

The Santa Fe Opera

June 27 – Aug. 23, 2014

The collision between grand opera and the iPhone is happening now; it’s just in places like Santa Fe that the wreckage is perhaps less noticeable. Does anyone still prefer a live orchestra, over-the-top theatrics, and $200 tickets to their Apps and free YouTube videos of whatever opera, movie or porn genre comes to mind? Why go to the opera house, when you have a multitasking entertainment playground in your hands, and it’s all included? Among the big urban musical organizations, opera companies exist in markets like San Francisco, where the wealth that traditionally fuels high art is now in the hands of young Internet millionaires — lots of them. These places will be, by necessity, the laboratory for change — for a cross-generational re-do of an art form.   Gray-heads are already being replaced by Twitter-following tattoo people, who are the new parents, taxpayers, and benefactors. For artistic organizations, now is the time.

In Santa Fe, change is slower, and the artistic aspects of this changing-of-the-guard seems to have enviable priority over the financial ones. On its sunset-bathed, outdoor arena, opera plays out in a high-desert cultural Disneyland — one that offers not only museums and the Indian Market, but mountain biking, river rafting, hiking and cutting-edge dining options for the younger set, as well as Southwest Airlines connections to cities all over the U.S. Of course, patrons who have the time, money and inclination to travel to New Mexico to attend the opera are often the very same gray-heads who are dwindling in the cities — it’s just that Santa Fe exists as a hub rather than an outpost. Its still slightly exotic location helps set it apart.

That being said, the changes on view in the production of “Carmen,” which opened the 2014 season at Santa Fe Opera, exemplify the new. We have the accompaniment, for the first time, of video projections as not only background, but narrative-provider—a mini-movie that plays out within an opera (a projection system was perhaps not utilized by designers until now due to technological challenges faced in this open-air auditorium). We also have a director, Stephen Lawless, who calls his production a “ ‘Carmen’ for the ‘Breaking-Bad’ generation.” The setting has been transported from Spain to the Mexican-American border. The time is the 1950s. These smugglers specialize in human contraband.

Bizet’s score remains its timeless, karaoke-worthy self, full of great choruses, rousing orchestral interludes, and bread-and-butter arias. Among the singers cast, the titular Carmen, Daniela Mack, (Ana María Martínez takes over for the second part of the season on July 28)  may be a mezzo, but she offers clarity over smoke, a forced, Olivia Newton-John sluttiness, and absolutely no sense of power over a Don José (Roberto De Biasio) who is all voice and no libido. Michaëla (Joyce El-Khoury), is the singer who spent the most time playing silent movie actress. An entire scene has her — in black-and-white video — sitting in a very New Mexican-looking bedroom, sponging the brow of Don José’s dying mother, before trudging off into a gray sunset, wearing the same costume and heels she has onstage, to give her soldier news about Mom. This is a directorial mistake — the scene has all the dramatic impact of a commercial for hearing aids — but onstage, El-Khoury also delivers one of the night’s most perfect moments. Her aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” in Act III shimmers with ache and beauty.

Beyond the video backdrop, which works really well in scenes where slo-mo images of bullfighters entering a ring seem choreographed to Bizet’s processional music, Lawless’ “Breaking Bad” conceit is best taken in small doses. A local reviewer called Escamillo an Elvis impersonator, while Carmen’s final costume includes a Marilyn Monroe wig and white fake-fur coat (better to show the blood stains). Still, the overall design offers sliding panels which alternately reveal cigarette girls, soldiers, and later becomes a framing enclosure for a human bullfight. In addition, a mezzanine level offers room for an excellent chorus to hang out, and their presence, above the action,  underlines the voyeurism inherent in a story about sex and death. Other scenic elements, like the chain link fence and border patrol post (and accompanying video of immigrants hidden away in a night-traveling truck) “borders” on the offensive.   This is New Mexico, after all, and immigration is a hot button topic. Still,  political edginess is welcome in a production that is not only designed to sell a lot of tickets, but to interest a new generation.

Michael Wade Simpson

Santa Fe, NM
Mr. Simpson has a BA in Journalism from the University of Southern California and worked as an advertising writer in Los Angeles before moving to New York to pursue a different passion: dance. He danced professionally in New York and Boston before founding a community-based modern dance company, Small City Dance Project, in Newburyport, MA. His fiction has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. He was a teaching fellow at Smith College, where he received his MFA in choreography. While living in the Bay Area for 15 years, he wrote about dance for the San Francisco Chronicle and other periodicals. In 2005, he was a NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival. For culturevulture.net, he reviews dance, theatre and film. He moved to Santa Fe in October, 2008. He writes for "Pasatiempo," the Arts magazine of the "Santa Fe New Mexican."