Girls with plunging necklines and skin-tight miniskirts file out of a Mercedes-Benz sedan, laughing and dancing. This scene might sound like a typical weekend night out in Boston, but it occurred on the stage of the Boston Opera House—the first time opera graced its stage since 1990. On Friday, Sept. 23, Boston Lyric Opera premiered Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” The show was the U.S. debut for director Calixto Bieito, who set it in modern-day Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city in North Africa. Sultry and captivating, the opera, which ran through Oct. 2, managed to paint a comedic cover while staying true to the deeply-rooted passions of the story.
Compared with traditional productions of extravagant backdrops of Seville, the scenery throughout set the tone for a performance taking place in the present, beginning with a flagpole and phone booth standing alone on stage in Act I. A large bull head covered the background of Act II and III, suggesting the Toreador’s upcoming force. The tone was accented with blue hints from the lighting, foreshadowing the dark nature of the ending.
Generally, the modern setting is achieved effectively and adds a novel flavor to the opera. Mercè Paloma’s costumes were sensual, with simplistic trench coats for the cigarette girls and slinky getups for the Gypsies. The dresses and skirts that adorned Carmen were flattering and outlined her silhouette. The classic Mercedes sedans that rolled on stage were powerful and served as a perfect prop for the choreography. Some of the modern props, however, felt extraneous. It’s cute the first time Micaëla takes a flashing selfie with Don José, but the repetition of flashing cameras throughout scenes in the opera feels contrived.
Among many strong performances, baritone Michael Mayes looked as charming and confident in the role of Escamillo, the Toreador, as his voice sounded alluring. But the real musical highlight of the opera was soprano Chelsea Basler as Micaëla in Act III, with a thrilling delivery of “C'est les contrabandiers le refuge ordinaire.” Liam Moran as Zuniga and Vicent Turregano as Moralès were just as playful as Andrew Garland and Samuel Levine in the roles of the smugglers; Carmen’s gypsy girlfriends, played by Kathryn Skemp Moran and Heather Gallagher, were frisky and fun. Jennifer Johnson Cano executed the choreography brilliantly in the title role as Carmen, yet her voice sometimes lacked the fieriness that her body movements portrayed so beautifully. The mezzo-soprano did deliver an impressive “Habanera,” the opera’s most famous aria, however, and her “Seguidilla” was quite seductive.
Bieto’s characterizations were occasionally puzzling, even as the performers excelled in delivery. As an obsessive lover, tenor Roger Honeywell definitely revealed the psychological depths of Don José. But José was perhaps a bit too creepy, drawing away from the usual pity invoked by the character’s amorous downfall. Honeywell delivers clearly, and he shines in moments where desperation seeps from his voice. This problem is amplified by his relationship with Micaëla—or lack thereof. Unlike the traditional timid Micaëla, Bieito’s was bold and lustrous, even mocking Carmen as she convinced José to leave with her under the pretense that his mother is dying. Similarly, José’s complete lack of reciprocal affection in this production made it easier for him to go along with Carmen, weakening the inner struggle that is so important in developing his character.
Though an opera house doesn’t always see underwear thrown off and wild parties filled with provocative dancing on stage, Bieito’s “Carmen” is no more shocking today than what the original would have been in 1875. Overall, Bieito’s present day setting updates the opera for a broader and younger audience while still keeping the integrity of Bizet’s beloved score. The power of the staging lies in the fact that this is a reinvented work set so that a new generation can relate to and understand it. Traditionalists may say that Carmen needs no modernization, but if anything were to revive opera in the Boston Opera House, this would be it.
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