Company: Opera Theater of Saint Louis
Venue: Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, Webster University, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves
Dates: May 27; June 4, 8, 12, 16, 22 and 25
Tickets: $ 25 to $ 135; contact experienceopera.org or 314-961-0644
Highlights: Opera Theater of Saint Louis returns to the Loretto-Hilton Center after a three-year absence due to the coronaviral pandemic with a smart, stylish presentation of Georges Bizet’s enduringly popular opera.
People are also reading…
Story: A group of soldiers in Franco’s fascist Spain of the 1950s gathers in a square in Seville to relax a bit and flirt with the women at a nearby factory. One of the women, a gypsy named Carmen, playfully approaches the receptive men, but is ignored by the stoic soldier José. Undeterred, she sets her sights on him before going back inside.
A while later, an officer of the guard named Zuniga learns about a knife fight in the factory. He arrests Carmen and instructs José to take her to jail, but Carmen convinces José to let her go while en route. José is sent to jail for his failure to accomplish his mission. He forgets about Micaëla, his quiet girlfriend from back home, and instead fixates on Carmen.
Carmen and her rowdy friends congregate at Lillas Pastia’s Inn, where she meets the flamboyant toreador, Escamillo. The dashing bullfighter is enamored of Carmen and expresses his love, even while knowing Carmen is free and easy in her relationships, moving quickly from one to another.
When José is released from jail, he reunites with Carmen, who encourages him to join her and her ne’er-do-well friends. After seeing Zuniga pursue Carmen, the jealous José fights with his superior officer and is forced to flee with Carmen from the inn.
Micaëla finds José in the countryside, where he is consumed with passion and enraged with jealousy for Carmen. She informs José about the impending death of his mother, and he reluctantly agrees to return home with Micaëla. Before leaving, though, he fights with Escamilla, who has sought out Carmen and who invites her and her friends to his upcoming bullfight. Carmen disdains José and goes off to see Escamilla perform.
The enraged José follows Carmen to the arena. Failing to convince the independent Carmen to go away with him and unable to control his jealousy, he kills her.
Other Info: OTSL welcomed a large audience on opening night for a season which will feature two perennial favorites, “Carmen” and “The Magic Flute,” as well as two world premieres. The back bays were open to accommodate the large opening-night crowd, which greeted Andrew Jorgensen, OTSL’s general director, with warm applause for the return of opera indoors after last year’s season was held on the adjoining parking lot with great success.
Carmen returns to the Loretto-Hilton stage for a fourth time, following productions in 1987, 2004 and 2012. As with the other presentations, this version offers its own interpretation of 19th-century work, which was initially received with indifference in 1875 by its Parisian audiences.
Amanda Holden provides the English translation and dialogue for this rendition, adapting the original text by composer Bizet’s collaborators Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy after the novel by Prosper Mérimée.
Members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra provide a spirited reading of Bizet’s lively and absorbing composition, led by Daniela Candillari, who earlier this year was named OTSL’s first principal conductor with a three-year appointment. Her brisk and focused interpretation, in consort with stage director Rodula Gaitanou’s inspired guidance, keeps this version of “Carmen” moving at a pleasing pace, allowing the accomplished players to fully exercise their talents.
Sarah Mesko’s accomplished mezzo-soprano richly presents the famous aria “Habanera: L’Amour est un oiseau rebelle,” which follows shortly after the equally well-known overture and sets the tone for the production. Mesko also shows the haughty, rebellious nature of the title character and her lusty approach to sundry lovers in the four acts which occur over three hours, including an intermission.
Christian Purcell’s bass-baritone booms with commanding authority in the role of Escamillo, enunciating so clearly and decisively that there is no need to glance at the subtitles provided above either side of the auditorium. He captures Escamillo’s carefree spirit and love of adventure, exemplified in the famous “Toreador Song,” showing the bullfighter’s enchantment with the independent Carmen.
Tenor Adam Smith is fine singing the role of José, although this is a weaker and more ineffectual characterization of the lovestruck soldier than I recall in other versions, making José even less appealing. As a result, soprano Yunuet Laguna’s effective reading of his devoted girlfriend Micaëla is made even sadder because of José’s self-absorbed and misguided personality.
A true highlight of this version is Rachael Nelson’s sensual, beguiling moves as a flamenco dancer at Lillas Pastia’s Inn, while Jesús Vicente Murillo is convincing as the cocky officer, Zuniga. There’s also fine work by an ensemble including Schyler Vargas, Jazmine Olwalia, Shelen Hughes, Jared V. Esguerra, Titus Muzi and Cesar Andres Parreno.
The action takes place on a sparse set designed by Cordelia Chisholm, which features a large wall bracketing the players in the center of the stage and a pair of large doors at the rear opening into an unseen arena for the finale. Chisholm’s costumes range from the drab attire of the factory workers to the uniforms of the soldiers to the colorful attire worn by Carmen at Lillas Pastia’s Inn and Escamillo’s flamboyant garb.
Chisholm’s set is enhanced by Christopher Akerlind’s carefully crafted lighting, and Tom Watson’s wig and makeup design is faithful to the era. Kudos especially go to Rosa Mercedes’ choreography, accentuated by Nelson’s flamenco dance.
The music of “Carmen” is as captivating as always, and the story is the familiar boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-kills-girl tragedy. It’s all brought to fruition thanks to the creative control of conductor Candillari and director Gaitanou. Olé!