The Power of Carmen, the Tragedy of Don José

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In this day and age, it is hard to see how Bizet’s opera Carmen could have scandalized audiences.  We are so used to seeing the seamier sides of life on the stage and screen; no one was scandalized by Sweeney Todd!  But it took centuries for opera to center working people rather than royalty, and the original Bizet opera opens with a scene full of ordinary soldiers and cigarette factory workers. Not only that, the heroine Carmen is from a marginalized group, the “gypsies.”  While the Roma people have been much romanticized and their music much admired, in reality, they have been an oppressed group throughout history and still are today. Their nomadic and free-wheeling way of life does not fit the social standards of marriage, property ownership, and getting a job. Those are not the desires of a gypsy!

What Carmen values above all is freedom:  her freedom to live and love as she wishes, from moment to moment, day to day; she is more free than a 21st century American woman.  She is not really a tragic figure, since she is always in control of her own destiny, enjoying the challenge of life on the edge, even wiling to spit in the face of death rather than give up her freedom. She never doubts herself, and her death follows inexorably from her own choices. Brennan Martinez dominated the HPAF production with her sultry mezzo-soprano, expertly navigating several octaves and tempos with a strong sense of self-confidence throughout.  Carmen’s first aria, the “habanera,” prefigures what is to come: “Love is a gypsy’s child which knows no law… if I love you, beware!”  Carmen flaunts the power of her beauty knowing that her independent and dangerous ways – we meet her when she has just been in a knife fight with another woman – is irresistible to men. Why would any man choose some sweet and innocent girl when a firebrand like Carmen is around? They are drawn to her like moths to a flame.

The opera is really “the tragedy of Don José.” Unlike Carmen, he is weak and vacillating. From an upstanding soldier who loves his mother and has one of those sweet and innocent sweethearts, he descends into disobedience to his officer, to time in the brig, to deserting the army and joining the gypsy band of brigands, to jealousy and madness and murder. Ethan Burck’s emotional tenor illumined the heights of passion, and the depths of despair into which he is thrown in the course of his obsession with the gypsy temptress. His is indeed a tragic fate, a good man brought low.

Jaime Webb, as Micaela, the woman so loyal to Don José that she is willing to risk an encounter with Carmen for him, has an appropriately sweet soprano voice. John Tibbetts sang the part of the toreador with an easy-going base, and lent some humor with his polite and reasonable manner even in the middle of a knife fight with Don José (whom he fends off like a bull with his cape!).

This production was based on the Peter Brook adaptation (1981) that pared the parts down to the four main characters.  HPAF adapted that version to add back a few performers. This was a good idea; I would have liked to hear even more from the two gypsy friends of Carmen’s sung by Danielle Barnett and Alexa Rosenberg; one of my favorite moments was the charming dialogue/duet sung by these two over Tarot cards. One’s fate is love, the other’s is wealth. They are then joined by Carmen who read her unfavorable cards in the first act, and now once again, Carmen’s cards read “death.” After her slow and foreboding interlude, the other two go back to their cheerful song, as if they just do not want to think about Carmen’s future.

While the costumes were gorgeous, particularly the toreador’s, the stage setting was spare; instead of changing props, a continuous video played as a backdrop, depicting the stone prison to which Don José is sentenced, the forest where the gypsies hang out, the bull-fighting ring in Seville called Plaza de Toros. The marvelous orchestra itself played a role; the recurring “fate” motif is dark and brooding with drums beating an ominous undertone.

For classical music aficionados, to borrow a term from bullfighting, HPAF’s opera performances are anticipated with excitement.  Over fifteen years now, many of us have become HPAF aficionados, and Carmen deepened our affection and appreciation.  Olé! Olé! Olé!


Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.

Photos: Steve Roby

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