By Mark Dreisonstok
In the month of May, Washington National Opera presented a very lively production of “Carmen” at the Kennedy Center. Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” with its tuneful, accessible melodies and simple plot, has become arguably the world’s most popular opera.
Indeed, it has permeated Western culture in so many ways, from the musical “Carmen Jones” starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte (and other “Carmen”-influenced Hollywood films) to the writings of the usually iconoclasticphilosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who treated the opera “Carmen” with admiration and (in his words) a “gentle reverence.” It is little wonder that the audience at the Kennedy Center also responded warmly to the famous melodies and universal story, especially in the production fused together so well by director Francesca Zambello.
The story revolves around Don José, a military guard who gets entangled with the free-spirited and willful femme fatale Carmen.
She tosses him a rose (it “hit me like a bullet,” Don José, says), and this is the beginning of the end for the soldier as he discards career and reputation in his passion for the wily Carmen. We read in Prosper Mérimée’s novella upon which the opera is based that Carmen “had a strange and wild beauty . . . loving and fierce . . . ” Isabel Leonard captured these and other moods of Carmen which (quoting again from Mérimée) “change like the weather.”
The mezzo-soprano (and therefore the audience) enjoyed especially good moments with Carmen’s entrance and the singing of the beautiful “Habanera” and the entrancing “Seguidilla.”
Tenor Michael Fabiano, who took on the role of Don José, captured the audience’s sympathy in acting and song as the soldier unable to return to his sedate lifestyle prior to the meeting Carmen.
The stage presence of bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green (who hails from Suffolk, Virginia) impressed audience members as he appeared on stage as Escamillo the bullfighter on a white horse and sang with verve the famous “Toreador Song.”
Soprano Vanessa Vasquez performed beautiful and poignant arias as Micaëla, the earlier and now rejected love interest of Don José.
Even those unfamiliar with opera likely know some of the melodies of “Carmen,” and the excellent conducting of Evan Rogister maintained a wonderful balance between Spanish and Romani music crafted by Bizet and the more traditional opera/symphonic sound of the opera house.
The sets by Tanya McCallin were possibly the most unusual element, as they were simple, indescript walls, at times representing the exterior of a cigarette factory, Lillas Pastia’s tavern, a hideaway in the mountains, and the outside of a bullfighting arena.
The simplicity of sets allowed for easy transitions between scenes but perhaps also encouraged the audience to exercise their imaginations. There is plenty of colorful pageantry as the opera rushes towards the tragic close of Act IV, with the colorful costumes and banners associated with the bullfight.
Lighting designers Paule Constable and Justin A. Partier must also come in for praise, as they added a nice moment at the beginning in which Don José is seen (through the suggestion of light, silhouette, and opaque curtain) meeting his tragic end, surrounded by guards.
Subtitles were put together by the San Francisco Opera Association, rendering the original French into modern English so that the production would be broadly accessible to the audience.
For those who missed “Carmen,”, the Washington National Opera has some excellent operatic works on offer later this year,including Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (a tale of witchcraft) and Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” (centering around the daughter of the ancient Greek king Agamemnon of Trojan War fame).
As some of the WNO productions are minimalist like “Carmen” and others are highly ornate like the company’s “Tosca” of recent years, the audience will always be left in suspense as to which direction these future productions will take.