Opera’s original “bad girl” is back onstage
by Ed Rampell
Copyright 2007® LosAngeles Journal. All Rights Reserved
Los Angeles Opera’s do-not-miss Carmen is the best production that I’ve seen so far at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and I learned a major lesson in art appreciation at this performance in the process. Hungarian mezzo-soprano Viktoria Vizin brilliantly embodies the eponymous character,the sensuously smoky cigarette girl who works in a tobacco factory and burns with a lust for life in Georges Bizet’s Spain-set opera. Vizin’s Gypsy seductively caresses her body, spreads her legs, hikes her scarlet dresses up to reveal inner thighs and so on. Carmen is a prototypical “Latin lover,” the essence of the “hot blooded” “oversexed” Latina – although the Paris-born Bizet never set foot in Spain. Like the Biblical characters of Jezebel and Bathsheba, Carmen is also an archetypal “bad girl,” whose unabashed, open carnality leads to carnage. Film Noir is full of these femme fatales who ensnare males in a web of desire.
But in our more enlightened times, Carmen might alternately be seen as a liberated woman who unapologetically owns her own sexuality, an apostle and practitioner of a form of “free love.” (Note: Nancy Fabiola Herrera, who hails from the Canary Islands and presumably sings like a canary, plays Carmen Dec. 6, 9 and 14.) Tenor Marcus Haddock portrays Don Jose, the soldier who falls madly in love with Carmencita. It is the genius of Bizet, and his librettists Ludovic Halevy (lyrics) and Henri Meilhac (book), that despite his weaponry and warlike skills, the military man is less powerful than the alluring Carmen, whose power stems solely from her sexuality and the force of her personality. (Note: Spanish tenor German Villar takes on this role Dec. 6, 9 and 14.)
Don Jose is repeatedly forced to choose between “duty” and sex. It’s obvious which one wins out, or else there would have been no opera. That ‘60s slogan, “make love, not war,” could have been derived from this play. (The late comic George Carlin once said that had he invented that motto, he would have made his contribution to the human race and spent the rest of his life at the beach – lucky for us, he didn’t: apparently, Bizet did.) Further complicating the drama is Micaela, a “wholesome” woman who offers Don Jose a chaste form of “pure” love as well as mom and apple pie. It’s the age-old “whore versus the angel” return. This genial character is depicted by Austrian soprano Genia Kumeier and on Dec. 6, 9 and 14 by Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak.
But wait, there’s more to throw into the explosive mix: the crowd-pleasing matador Escamillo (bass Raymond Aceto), who is also bewitched by Carmen, squaring the love triangle. Predictably, with all of these combustible emotional elements (which include a dash of cross-dressing), all hell breaks loose in this production adeptly directed by Javier Ulacia, who hails from Carmen’s homeland. Gerardo Trotti’s sets co-star in this lavish production. His subtropical Spanish plaza with palms, rendition of Lillas Pastia’s (Worthie Meacham) inn and bullring all ringtrue, helping to bring the action and play fully alive. They quite literally set the scene.
Spaniard Nuria Castejon’s carefully staged choreography, which includes wild flamenco numbers, is ebulliently sensational. Ole! Of course, the real superstar of this or any other production of what is widely considered to be the most popular opera is Bizet’s music, ably conducted here under the baton of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume. Vizin’s performance of Carmen’s “Habanera” aria, Aceto’s singing of the baritone aria, the “Toreador Song,” et al, are all exquisitely rendered by the singers and orchestra. Bravo!