It’s not without its missteps, but strong performances by (among others) Aleksey Bogdanov as Escamillo, Corinne Winters as Micaëla, and—first and foremost—hometown gal Kendall Gladen as a magnetic Carmen make it work much more often than not.
In his program notes, director Stephen Barlow makes a strong case for turning Bizet’s 1878 opera into a 1940s black and white crime movie, complete with opening and closing titles. “The ominous world view of film noir,” he writes, “sits remarkably well with both Mérimée’s and Bizet’s Carmen, especially given that they all share the exact same theme: the impossibility of escape from a cold implacable fate.” Don José’s self-destructive obsession with Carmen also works in both worlds, as does the drama’s setting in the fringes of society.
In order for José’s fall from grace to work, though, there has to be some grace there in the first place. In the context of the original libretto the army is, at worst, morally neutral, and José’s sense of duty is actually admirable. When the army in question is the fascist Guardia Civil of World War II Spain, however, the equation changes drastically. In this context, that sense of duty and Micaëla’s determination to bring him back to it are, at best, naïve if not actually delusional. I’m also not convinced it makes sense to turn José into a murderer two acts early by having him shoot Zuniga at the end of Act II.
Changing the smugglers’ contraband from unspecified goods to undocumented immigrants (possibly refugees; it’s not that clear from the staging) also complicates the moral landscape. It’s one thing to be a tax dodger; it’s quite another to make a profit off the desperation of your fellow humans.
Still, the general idea is a good one and when this “Carmen” is firing on all cylinders the results are entertaining as hell. An excellent example is the crowd scene and pre-bullfight procession that open Act IV. There’s a pair of adorable tykes dolled up as a toreador and his lady, a statue of the Virgin, flamenco dancers, and finally an entrance in a vintage touring car and a shower of monochrome confetti by Carmen and Escamillo who sing their love duet to the microphones as part of a photo opportunity. It’s a neat demonstration of gaudy pageantry and mindless hero-worship that contrasts starkly with the upcoming deranged declaration of love from Don José.
All this is buoyed considerably by a mostly fine cast, a superb chorus with elocution so clear the projected English text was often irrelevant, and a first-rate orchestra of St. Louis Symphony musicians under the baton of the much-praised young Venezuelan conductor Carlos Izcaray.
The sine qua non for “Carmen” is, of course, a convincing performance in the title role—someone who can persuade the audience that she’s so utterly irresistible that she can bend every man she encounters to her will. In St. Louis native Kendall Gladen, we have all that and then some. Despite the handicap of a sinus infection on opening night, Ms. Gladen gave us a smoky-voiced and fiercely seductive Carmen whose dealings with the men around her bring to mind lyrics from the 1924 classic “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah)”: “To tease ‘em and thrill ‘em / To torture and kill ‘em / Is her delight, they say.” It’s not difficult to envision this Carmen “throwing water on a drowning man.”
Ukrainian baritone Aleksey Bogdanov is an ideal Escamillo—a preening, self-satisfied showoff who, unlike poor Don José, understands exactly what he’s getting into with Carmen. His Act II “Toreador” song has all the swagger and vocal flash you could wish for.
Former Gerdine Young Artist Corinne Winters makes the most of the “good girl” role of Micaëla, especially in her heartfelt Act III aria. As written, the character is painfully stereotypical—the virgin vs. Carmen’s whore—but Ms. Winters gives her a genuine soul.
Speaking of the Gerdine Young Artist program, current members of that program Shirin Eskandani and Jennifer Caraluzzi make a strong impression as Carmen’s friends Mercédès and Fasquita. So does Bradley Smoak (another former program member) as the arrogant Zuniga.
Vocally you couldn’t ask for a better Don José than Adam Diegel. His ringing tenor voice and clear articulation add much to the role. Dramatically, though, I found him less than convincing. His character seemed more petulant than tragic and his spoken dialogue came across as a bit stilted. Some of that’s in the libretto, of course, but even so, there’s more emotional range in Don José than we saw on opening night.
Set and costume designer Paul Edwards has carried out the black and white movie motif perfectly, with discrete touches of color (Carmen’s Act I flower and the neon sign for Pastia’s bar, for example) for dramatic impact. Christopher Akerlind’s shadowy lighting falls right into line, mimicking the shadowy look of those classic films.
The bottom line, then, is that while Opera Theatre’s “Carmen” is far from perfect, it succeeds often enough to be well worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of the piece to begin with or just want to welcome a hometown gal back in triumph. The director’s concept may not always work, but it’s an intelligent attempt to put a novel spin on classic in a way that respects the world of the original, and for that I think it deserves our support.
“Carmen” continues through June 23rd in rotating repertory with three other operas on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information, you may visit experienceopera.org or call 314-961-0644.