Carmen at LA Opera - Review

Endlessly Fascinating Character

Gerald and Georja attended the opening night of Carmen, one of the most popular operas ever.

Carmen (Viktoria Vizen) seduces Don José (Marcus Haddock).

Nothing-not even love-can tame Carmen, the delectable femme fatale of Seville, who springs to life onstage in an intoxicating whirl of thrilling music and heart-stopping drama. Georges Bizet's dazzling score is an endless parade of one great melody after the other, from the languid allure of Carmen's gypsy songs to the macho boasts of the dashing bullfighter. Carmen premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on March 3, 1875.

Revelers in nightlife scene, Act II.

Gerald: This story is a love triangle between Carmen ( Viktoria Vizen) and two suitors--the army corporal Don José ( Marcus Haddock) and the arrogant bullfighter Escomillo ( Raymond Aceto).

Vizen with Escomillo (Raymond Aceto).

Georja: To me, this isn't so much a love triangle as a portrait of an extremely free-spirited woman who chooses liberty over love. Throughout the piece she reinvents herself--from sensuous, scrappy gypsy queen to rebellious smuggler and revolutionary, to a societal icon.

Carmen is the town hottie, Act I.

Gerald: Well, that's a very modern interpretation, and I'm not sure the producers of the current production would disagree. But in Bizet's time I think she'd be considered a fascinating hussy, and in the end she's the bullfighter's expensive girlfriend, but hardly a lady in society.

Georja: That's just it. No matter what role she's in, she's still her own person. When she's a gypsy, she'll fight or disagree with the other gypsies. When she's a lady, she still does whatever she damn pleases.

Gerald: The fascination is with her shameless sexuality. And men who become fascinated with her become blinded to everything else.

Georja: That's true. Her character is endlessly fascinating. To this role Vizen brings her beauty, her statuesque presence, her gracefulness, and her flamenco-style movements. Not to mention her magnificent mezzo-soprano voice. She is Carmen personified!

Gerald: Before our readers think Vizen is the whole story, we should add that the role will be alternately performed by Nancy Fabiola Herrera, when the roles of Don José will be sung by German Villar and Michaëla by Sabina Cvilak. ( Genia Kühmeir made her company debut as Michaëla in the opening-night performance we saw.)

Michaëla (Genia Kühmeir ) impresses in her soprano aria, Act III.

Georja: As familiar as this music is, the LA Opera orchestra, conducted in this run by Emmanuel Villaume, is rousing, brisk, clear, and fresh.

Gerald: They went out and got a French conductor who knows every nuance of the libretto, just as they had a Spanish director ( Javier Ulacia) who totally understands not only the dazzling flamenco numbers but also the ambiance of Seville.

Georja: Gerardo Trotti's set designs were created originally for Teatro Real in Madrid. Opera lovers are treated to four mammoth set changes. From the plaza in Seville to the mountains above the city, each set is magnificent in its depth and ambience.

Gerald: The Madrid production was directed by another Spaniard, Emilio Sagi, and it played here in the 2004 season. The current production is a revival, with a new director.

Flamenco tour-de-force at top of last scene.

Georja: The choreography--the dancing and the movement of the crowd scenes--is masterful. At times it felt like there were hundreds of characters on stage. In the first act, the children's song and dance imitating the soldiers is charming. The company dance number with the red fans in the last act is a show-stopper. (The choreographer is Nuria Castejón. For the kids' parts, she was assisted by children's chorus director Anne Tomlinson.)

Gerald: We've seen Carmen twice before--first in the 2004 Los Angeles production, then as a concert of highlights last summer at the Hollywood Bowl when Denyce Graves sang the title role. I was struck this time by how much the mood changes in Act II when the scene shifts to find the rebellious band of gypsies in the mountains above Seville. It was cold and stark, and I'm reminded that in 1871, just a few years before Bizet wrote this, Paris had seen its second working-class revolution, the Commune. The city was terrified--and there was, as Don José feels here, a frightening sense of whether it's right to cast your fate with the rebels.

Georja: But in the end, Don José's obsession with Carmen seems to overrule his conscience.

Gerald: You got that right. Deserting the army--then as now--was no light decision. The bullfighter, on the other hand, seems to live only for himself and glory. He's enthralled with Carmen, too, even chasing her up into those mountains, but you get the feeling at the end he'll quickly find another.

Georja: When Escomillo sings the famous "Toreador Song," as spirited and uplifting as the music is, I have to say on reading the subtitles with the lyrics about inflicting suffering on the horses and the bull, I'm afraid I will never enjoy it as much again.

Gerald: That's another modern interpretation Bizet's audience would never have dreamt, but a valid one for our times, certainly.

In this updated Carmen, she seems to seek her own demise.

Georja: Human consciousness, although it still has a long way to go, is hopefully rising in regard to our collective understanding, compassion, and treatment of other species on the earth.

Gerald: You and the artists in this production have found a way to see Carmen's character in a totally contemporary way. As for me, I'm not so sure the issues of love and class struggle have changed much at all.

Georja Umano is an actress-comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.

Photos by Robert Millar

Los Angeles Opera

(213) 972-8001

(213) 687-3490 fax

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LA Opera Bizet's Carmen


Saturday, November 15, 2008, 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, November 22, 2008, 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, November 30, 2008, 2:00 p.m.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, December 6, 2008, 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, December 7, 2008, 2:00 p.m.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008, 1:00 p.m.

Sunday, December 14, 2008, 1:00 p.m.

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