Arts Review: Austin Opera’s Carmen

Love and death mingle in a classic, crowd-pleasing opera

Austin Opera’s Carmen (photo by Erich Schlegel)

Even if you don’t think you know opera, trust me: You know Carmen. It’s like the “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Ride of the Valkyries,” classical songs that worm their way into the cultural subconscious. It’s a perfect starter opera. Not just because you’re guaranteed to perk up at some point when you recognize the music, but also because this story is brisk. There’s romance. Sex. Jealousy. Violence. It makes sense that Austin Opera would choose this guaranteed crowd-pleaser as their 2023-2024 season closer.

Full disclosure: I absolutely love Carmen. It was my first and still reigning favorite opera, the only one where I anticipate each score beat before it happens. My incredible seventh grade music teacher went above and beyond introducing my class to Carmen. We learned songs, we watched film adaptations (including Carmen Jones with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte), we even went to a production by the local opera. I’ve seen Georges Bizet’s classic as often as possible. So yeah, I understand why Austin Opera would go with this certified hit.

Per the announcement at the beginning of the show, this performance is the highest-selling in Austin Opera history. Which makes sense! This tale of stuffy soldier Don José (Samuel Levine) being seduced by the dangerous Carmen (Cecelia Hall), only to turn murderous when she bores of him, is packed to the gills with high emotional stakes. Saturday night’s audience was rapt, with even families and children packing the seats and murmuring in recognition of “Habanera” and “The Toreador Song.” There were some unfortunate mishaps – some missed cues, the supertitles cutting out for the last bit of Act II – but the performance overcame those obstacles, partially due to spectacular acting.

The cast delivers absolutely gorgeous stagecraft. The leads and company manage to act to the rafters and still offer nuance. Hall’s Carmen conveyed strength with a current of madness in each fluidly sensual move. Seth Carico’s Escamillo was a crowd favorite – maybe less subtle, but full of goofy machismo delight. He also garnered the second-biggest applause of the night, with his preening rendition of “The Toreador Song” in Act II. The biggest cheers were deservedly saved for Raquel González’s Micaëla, the pure-hearted but spurned lover of Don José. Her soaring, sincere delivery of “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante (Micaëla’s Aria),” where she searches for the lost José, ready to plead for him to return to her and his mother, brought down the house. She filled the Long Center with her pure soprano tones, working well thematically against Carmen’s sultry mezzo-soprano.

Carmen’s popularity can be a double-edged sword. It’s so well known that some elements can’t really change. This production feels traditional, but director Rebecca Herman snuck in some startlingly memorable scenes. There are moments of radiant staging, the kind that make you perk up in your seat and go “oh, that’s good.” Like Act I’s introduction of the all-female workers at the tobacco plant. It’s presented like a Busby Berkeley musical, lithe smoking women descending stairs while the male chorus sings their praises, all languid and beautiful. Act II opens with a clever game of freeze tag between Carmen and a packed pub. The music rises and falls from loud to soft, and during every quiet moment the company onstage freezes while Carmen moves among them, an excellent highlight of her assured beauty. And the murderous final moments make a choice that, while more brutal than the typical staging, ups the tension and promises to linger in the mind.

These moments shine in part because the beats of Carmen can be so expected, and Austin Opera does play to that. But it does so in service to a classic. Again, it’s a perfect starter opera, one that captures the ears of novice opera listeners.


Austin Opera at the Long Center

May 2-5

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Austin Opera, Carmen, Rebecca Herman, Cecelia Hall, Seth Carico

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