“Carmen” Triumphs, Seduces, and Saddens

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© T Charles Erickson Photography; Carmen (Jennifer Johnson Cano) scrawls “love” on the chest of solider Joseph Yonaitis.

Presented by Boston Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera
Conducted by David Angus
Production by Calixto Bieto
Music by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

September 23 – October 2, 2016
Boston Opera House
539 Washington Street
Boston, MA 02111
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Review by Gillian Daniels

(Boston, MA) So, okay, say you know this girl, right? More of a “broad,” maybe—flirts with the boys but won’t take shit from them, never lies to appease some dude’s ego, takes lovers and throws them away with ease. Say she gets in a tough situation—but it’s hard to say what’s tough for her, really, she’s not from a great background. But she’s in this situation, right? And it’s either go to prison or go home at the end of a long work day at the cigarette factory. So she flirts some with the poor, idiot small town officer that has her captive. Naïve guy, sweet enough.

He lets her go and, boom, he gets two months in prison for it. She’s a no-regrets-kind-of gal and continues partying. But, see, after prison, he goes to her and demands to know why she hasn’t visited him. She apologizes and offers to sleep with him, which makes them cool in her accounting of thing, but he tells her it’s not enough. They have something special, he says. She can’t be interested in some other guy, he tells her. Who is this guy, he demands? Who does he think he is and who does she think she is, doing as she likes? She owes him, he insists. He can’t leave now, he decides, and neither can she.

In popular culture, one doesn’t normally think of the opera Carmen as a domestic violence tragedy. Its popular reputation is of a g*psy temptress, Carmen (Jennifer Johnson Cano), who romances a soldier, Don José (Roger Honeywell) away from his pious, mother-approved fiancée, Micaëla (Chelsea Basler).

But the tragedy is not purely Don José‘s fall from grace but how Carmen is embroiled in that downfall. This isn’t a woman tempting men to tragedy but a tragedy of a woman who can’t escape the abuses of men.

The score is as forceful as the libretto is heartbreaking. The individual performances of the characters are fantastic. Lillas Pastia (Yusef Lambert) is delightfully charming and slimy and Zuniga (Liam Moran) is, much like the rest of the cast, having a great time when the plot isn’t barreling toward bad boyfriend tragedy.

Carmen, of course, shines as a sexy wild child who is willing to play hard with the boys. The production underscores that she is in a man’s world: the opening scene is a soldier’s camp with a single flag pole standing at attention in front of the soldiers. These same soldiers chase after and intimidate Micaëla and later chase a half naked woman up the same flag pole. This is a world of machismo with violent and flippant regard toward the autonomy of women.

After intermission, the main set piece is a giant bull in a field. Beneath it, a man strips off his clothes in the half darkness and dances, fully naked and aware of his power as a man. This bit ends, unexplained, just a further piece of the world that’s been realized on stage.

Carmen, being fearless, plays along to the best of her abilities. She strips off a soldier’s shirt to write her name on his chest in lipstick. She jumps on the hood of a car to dance after a wild night out with Frasquita (the hilarious Kathryn Skemp Moran), Mercédès (a wonderful performance from Heather Gallagher), and their male companions. If the world is hostile to them, they will do as they please, but Carmen can’t save herself from the toxic masculinity of the culture and Don José’s jealousy.

This world is listed as contemporary Cueta, a Spanish city in North Africa. It has gold chain mafia thugs, bored factory women who take pleasant cigarette breaks, and a worship of toreadors, specifically the well-off Escamillo (the irresistible Michael Mayes). The anachronistic “g*psy” is used during the show but seems to just be a description of the never-do-well types that sit on the edges of town.

Calixto Beito’s production has been influenced by gangster films. Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese’s brass knuckled realism is on display and Carmen—tied up, held at knife point, and slapped at various points of the show—feels the brunt of it. It could be feminist commentary or it could be an aesthetic choice, but it feels eerily real and distressing.

The set pieces are minimal, which makes the opening scenes colorless with all the men in uniform. I disliked the direction intensely until we see a young girl, played by Lily Waters, striking out on stage by herself to perform a dance for her doll. Every character after that feels more brightly dressed and, suddenly, more colorfully drawn. Though this girl is revealed to be the daughter of Mercédès, she also seems to be a sort of insight into Carmen’s background. She’s a girl born into a poverty and violence with no real opportunities but a desire to have fun. But here, even just that desire needs to be punished.

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