Seattle Opera takes on 'Carmen,' a daunting cultural icon

The production has a gripping Carmen and Micaela, plus an excellent conductor. But the overall impression is surprisingly restrained for an opera of unrelenting intensity.

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Anita Rachvelishvili and Luis Chapa as the doomed lovers in "Carmen"

The production has a gripping Carmen and Micaela, plus an excellent conductor. But the overall impression is surprisingly restrained for an opera of unrelenting intensity.

Bizet's Carmen may be surefire box office, but any serious attempt to stage it comes laden with risk. Besides the specific and considerable challenges of the score, there are no easy, ready-made solutions to questions that arise whenever the opera is performed. Just where on the spectrum between archetype and fully individuated character should the heroine be represented? How do the motivations between her and Don José play out? Why should we care about either’s fate?

Add to these and many other ambiguities the opera’s massive extra baggage as a cultural icon, and the prospect of taking on Bizet’s masterpiece becomes downright daunting.

But with any interpretation, one thing should always leave its mark: the searing, explosive effect of the violent denouement toward which the entire opera has been heading. Unfortunately, Seattle Opera’s new production failed to do so during Saturday’s opening night performance. The production has a promising mixture of company veterans and new voices, but the overall impression was surprisingly tame and even restrained.

This is Seattle Opera’s eighth Carmen production. As its lively, content-rich blog points out, the company took a, well, stab back in 1995 that jacked up the sex and violence and proved hugely controversial. (Yes, Carmen can still provoke controversy even in our jaded era.) The only previous Seattle Carmen I’ve experienced was the 2004 production, which boasted Stephanie Blythe in an unforgettable turn as the Gypsy femme fatale. Blending stylized elements with a gruff realism, it sported with meta-theatrical commentary as it portrayed the breakdown of the comfortable, conventional world in which Don José knows his place; the real bullfight watched by the onstage audience is his murder of Carmen.

The problem with the current Carmen, directed by Bernard Uzan, is that it mostly avoids any strong point of view. You get the feeling that the intention here isn’t just to moderate between extremes but to leave room so that different and even contradictory facets of the lead characters can emerge. It’s an idea with a lot of potential payoff. In practice, though, the result tended toward blandness rather than emotional complexity.  (Should you need a plot rehash, the company’s blog posted a hilarious spoof, Facebook style, that’s been going viral.)

Not that a director need impose some extrinsic “concept” on the material. Indeed, Bizet and his team of librettists crafted such a well-paced work that everything should fire on its own — that is, if the stakes are clarified with enough vividness and if the context for the characters’ choices is firmly established.

And that’s exactly where the risk-taking should come in, but fails to do so. Into the prelude Uzan inserts a little teaser by way of a pantomime during the “fate” music, in which we see the already slain Carmen as a team of toreros solemnly drag her corpse offstage. A few later echoes carry on this suggestion of a kind of fatalistic parallel universe alongside the naturalistic one — especially in the freeze-frame sequence when Carmen first interacts with Don José, throwing him a flower — but the device seems intrusively stagey.

What’s missing is the sense of danger engulfing Don José, which should grow with unrelenting intensity. At the end of the second act, for example, Uzan embellishes on the libretto by having the smugglers slash and execute Zuniga. That might be a way of underlining the general atmosphere of violence, but it’s all externalized. Meanwhile, the abyss into which Don José is already falling barely registers.

Director Uzan, a familiar presence over the years to Seattle Opera audiences (he’ll be back in January to direct Verdi's Attila), has staged Carmen numerous times in his career, so I was puzzled to see pivotal moments underplayed. The crowd scenes during the first act in particular become pretty pageants that lack color and tension; much more problematically, the lovers’ growing disenchantment with what each is discovering the other to be makes them react with peevishness rather than unbridled passion.

R. Keith Brumley’s pared-down semicircular set morphs easily from cigarette factory to gypsy tavern, mountain camp, and bullring. The design elements convey the conventional setting, with costumes (James Schuette) that neatly trace how Carmen’s various personae surface through the course of the action. Donald Edmund Thomas’s lighting seems oddly understated for the daytime scenes in Seville.

There are moments when this Carmen becomes gripping. Making her Seattle Opera debut, Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili has been developing a reputation for her portrayal of the title role in venues from La Scala to the Met. She has the goods vocally and physically, possessing a juicy, warm, layered sound that’s earthy enough to plant a garden. Her Seguidilla memorably clinched the moment of seduction.

Yet the magnetism that Carmen should emanate wasn’t always reliable on opening night. At times resembling an Andalusian Cher, Rachvelishvili harped on the gypsy’s fatalistic side in a way that simply came across as submissive ennui, if not outright indifference, when she senses rejection by Don José in the second act. This overriding fatalism lessened the impact of a potentially interesting choice also suggested by her approach — that she’s really fallen in love with him — and robbed the climactic murder scene of essential tension.

As her ill-fated lover, Mexican tenor Luis Chapa, here making his U.S. debut, brings an almost heldentenorish robustness to the role, singing the Flower Song with an alluring blend of passion and tenderness. Chapa’s vocal persuasion, though, seemed at odds with his portrayal of Don José as an insecure bully prone to physically abuse Carmen at the first sign of rejection. His sudden shifts in attitude made the final breakdown into the ultimate nightmare stalker feel arbitrary rather than inevitable.

In fact, the scene in which Chapa’s passion proved most convincing was not with Carmen. Instead, it came early on, in his duet with Micaëla evoking the life he has left behind. As the emissary from Don José’s past, soprano Norah Amsellem overcomes the goody two-shoes image of Micaëla: the lyrical eloquence she brings to her two key appearances makes them standouts of the production. Former Seattle Opera Young Artist Michael Todd Simpson returns with an impressive Escamillo who exudes swaggering, rock-star machismo. There are noteworthy contributions as well from Donovan Singletary as Don José’s arrogant army boss, Zuniga  (following a memorable appearance as Jake in the past summer’s Porgy and Bess) and Amanda Opuszynski and Sarah Larsen, who sing Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès.

Perhaps to tease out more of Uzan’s underdeveloped and understated “parallel universe,” the production includes some intriguing choreographed interpolations by Peggy Hickley, featuring Lisa Gillespie as principal dancer. Dances of stately, classical grace take the opera to a place far removed from the lust and violence that drive the story. The chorus has been well-prepared by Beth Kirchhoff (with the excellent youth chorus led by Elizabeth Moore), though I’d have preferred to see more interesting action devised for them as well.

Another high point is the truly impressive first Seattle Opera appearance by conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi (principal guest conductor at Royal Swedish Opera). Where the drama is missing onstage, Morandi and the orchestra convincingly supply it with a superb account that’s attentive to the sound painting and psychological nuances of Bizet’s score.

Jonathan Dean’s English titles,lively and wittily idiomatic as usual, prove especially handy, since Seattle Opera uses the spoken dialogue from the original 1875 opéra comique version of Carmen.

If you go: Seattle Opera’s production of Carmen runs through October 29 at McCaw Hall,  321 Mercer St., 206 684-7200.


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