through May 28
Running Time: 3 hrs, 30 min
If French is the language of romance, and Spain the place for passion, then Georges Bizet's opera, sung in French and set in Seville around 1820, is a highly combustible mixture, indeed. Produced by Austin Lyric Opera in as refreshing and vivid a presentation as any opera could wish -- and at the City Coliseum, no less -- Bizet's tale of a gypsy love-sorceress and her jealous soldier-lover should smolder in audiences' imaginations well after this production's last embers have flickered out.
Burning brightest is Rinat Shaham, who sings the title role (she alternates performances with mezzo-soprano Melanie Sonnenberg). From her gorgeous voice in song to her voluptuous figure cavorting among hundreds of suitors, gypsies, factory girls, and hordes of children, her Carmen is coquettish, agonizingly cruel, sometimes noble, and always aflame with a zest for life. When that life is clearly at its climax, Shaham turns death into defiance. Her Carmen burns with passion, then burns out with a flash. Shaham taunts, smiles, kisses, dances, laughs: She is sensuality itself, with wild, dark eyes that victimize the ordinary man but invite her lover to share her deepest secrets.
Even if you've never experienced an opera, you will have heard at least two of the songs in Carmen. One, the Habanera, is Carmen's sultry taunt to the men that would woo her: "Love is a bird that will never be tamed," she sings. Men that express their desires for her don't get her; it's the silent ones she craves. And if she does crave you, beware. Being a gypsy, Carmen's life is fraught with danger and mysticism -- and knives. Shaham makes this seductive song the embodiment of a gypsy girl whose life revolves around covert thieving and overt sexuality. She is perfect as this lusty, lovely anti-heroine: a girl you'd hate to love, but won't forget.
The other song you'll recognize instantly is the Toreador Song, first heard in the opera's overture (itself one of classical music's best-known pieces), then in the boisterous tavern scene, led by the bullfighter Escamillo, who becomes Carmen's lover as the story moves along. A bold, confident man as portrayed by bass-baritone Bradley Garvin, Escamillo has the demeanor and grandeur -- and fame and money -- to attract the gypsy girl. Not that she comes running to him; he has to hoof it up to the gypsies' mountain camp to get her attention.
Meanwhile, Carmen already has a corporal in the local guards enraptured and ensnared -- and soon to be enraged. Don José was a straight-shooting, honest young man, with a fiancée, Micaela, and a doting mother in a neighboring town. When he sees Carmen, or, rather, when Carmen sets her eyes on him, he is bewitched. At the end of her Habanera, she throws a rose at him. He is hooked. Later, when guarding the girl, he falls for her completely. In letting Carmen escape, Don José starts the long slide from upstanding soldier to gypsy to murderously jealous man. Tenor Nicholas Loren sings the role (alternating with Raul Melo), and while he's a bit stiff and traditionally operatic at first -- his physicality unnatural, his delivery more about positioning his body to sing better -- once he connects with Shaham's character, that heat seems to infect him, too. By opera's end, Loren matches Shaham in intensity, his singing and acting superb.
As Don José's hometown love, Jayoung Yoon is simple and lovely. The young soprano (who alternates her role with Marguerite Krull) has an assured air and honest presentation that makes her Micaela so gentle and genuine.
Besides the excellent singing, dancing, and acting of the cast -- how good to see the chorus so well used and always in character -- audiences will remark on the unique venue. While it doesn't live up to a year's worth of hype about audience interaction with the colorful gypsy world, director Joe McClain and designer Christopher McCollum have created a space for crowds of hundreds (or so it feels) to people Seville's town square and Señor Lillas Pastia's tavern. The opera's final moment is a powerful image of spectatorship turned to cold horror.
There are a few missteps -- the tatty entrance to the space that is about as magical as walking past laundry drying on the line; the too-huge distance between Carmen and Don José during her captive seduction of him in Act One -- still, this production has style in spades. The sometimes staid Lyric Opera has one of the hottest shows of the theatrical season. While maybe not quite the gypsy world envisioned by the producer, it is a world of detail, of exuberance and darkness; it is a world that unfolds in magnificent music and fiery, theatrical passion.
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