Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
To top it off–and I have been saving the best for last–is the magnificent staging by Denyce Graves. Graves has been one of the leading voices performing opera for over thirty-five years, and has made her mark especially performing the lead in Carmen, a role she first performed early in her career for Minnesota Opera in 1991. Now she has been invited back, this time as stage director. Graves brings the wisdom and passion of playing this enigmatic character many, many times for opera companies around the world to her vision for this production. Minnesota Opera last performed Carmen in 2015, giving it a perfectly good staging, but nothing like this Carmen–this one electrifies the vast space at the Ordway Center.
Graves places a significant focus on the Romani culture of Carmen and her friends. The Romani are one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Europe, scattered among many nations and living in isolated clusters, typically shunned and assigned to a low status. This being Carmen's background explains in part her raging independence, for she owes nothing to the dominant society–in this case, the city of Seville in the Andalusian province of southern Spain, and the powerful Catholic church. She uses her status as an outsider as a means of liberation.
As directed by Graves, and performed by Lahyani, this is a fire-breathing Carmen, able to control the temperature of all who enter her gravitational field. Soon after she first appears, she presents a scorched "Habanera," one of Bizet's best known pieces, announcing in her husky mezzo-soprano. Late in the opera, when she is warned to hide because Don José is near and of a most dangerous mind, she brays back, "Why should I hide, a woman like me is not afraid," we realize that it is not because she doubts Don José's capacity to do her great harm, even to murder her. It is that a woman like her will be true to herself and independent no matter what, and therefore fear never enters into it.
Don José, the doomed corporal who falls in love with Carmen, is from another world, a pastoral village where his aging mother awaits his return and where a childhood sweetheart pines for him. He enters the stage with virtue and innocence intact, a good solider and a gentleman. Once he falls under Carmen's spell he spirals ever downward, in each of the four acts breaking more deeply with his code of honor until he loses all ability to exercise restraint. In a sense, Carmen tells us more about Don José than about Carmen. We see the capacity for a person to steadily and surely descend toward animal urges. In fact, during act three, Don José, given not only powerful tenor voice but persuasive acting by Won Whi Choi, has the appearance of a caged animal, pacing and launching covetous looks at Carmen as he waits for her to set aside her dealing with a team of smugglers and give him her undivided attention. In the course of these four acts, it is Don José who is altered, while Carmen remains steadfastly who she was from her first entrance.
In addition to the two leads, who perform in rotation with Zoie Reams as Carmen and Rafael Moras as Don José, outstanding performances are given by soprano Symone Harcum as Micaëla, the girl Don José left behind, her vocal prowess as sweet as her character's nature; by Aaron Keeney as Escamillo, the arrogant torero who delivers Act Two's famed "Toreador Song" in a self-assured baritone, and to whom Carmen turns to when she tires of Don José; and by Allen Michael Jones as Zuniga, Don José's commanding officer who is also in pursuit of Carmen's charm, though with his gravely bass there is no hit of romance in his desire. The entire cast, chorus, and youth chorus bring additional notes of beauty and urgency to this production.
Eric Sean Fogel, the production's choreographer, as well as associate director, has made movement an essential part of this Carmen. He has created evocative dances that are far more than diversions to accompany the other elements; they create the atmosphere of heat, desire, and notes of fatalism. In addition to her phenomenal vocal and acting skills, Lahyani dances with sublime sensuality. The fight scenes and scenes of intimacy extend the physicality of the production, with fight director Doug Scholz-Carlson and intimacy director/assistant fight director Alessandra Bongiardina creating powerfully moving movements.
The story Carmen tells is of a proud and sensuous woman and the honorable man destroyed by his unsatiable attraction to her animal magnetism. Carmen taunts all of the local men, including the soldiers who keep the peace in the public square outside the tobacco factory where she and hordes of other women work. On her work break, Carmen and Don José first espy one another. Soon after, Micaëla arrives with a picnic lunch and a letter from Don José's mother. It isn't long before Don José turns from that wholesome girl to Carmen. A run-in with his commanding officer, Zuniga, causes Don José to leave with Carmen, who has agreed to aid friends in a smuggling operation. When Don José proves ill-suited to that new lifestyle, Carmen's affections wander toward the torero Escamillo, leading to a tragic conclusion outside the bullfight arena in Seville.
I loved this production so much–enough to elevate my opinion of Carmen from one of glorious music with an idiotic storyline with the foolishness of the hopeless love-at-first-sight premise, to that of a work with glorious music, yes, but also with some compelling insights into the nature and power of desire. That said, I must point out one small thing that lessened my enjoyment. In the third act, set in the smugglers' lair, there is a metal ramp on stage right that leads up into the wings. This looks totally out of place, with no indication of where it leads. This is an outdoor hideout in the mountains–where are people going when they exit or enter from the ramp? A small detail, but one that stood out with everything else done so brilliantly. For balance, a lovely touch is the acoustic guitarist, played by Daniel Volovets, who provides introspective underscoring during Act Two.
If you already have a taste for opera, you are bound to find this production of Carmen a joy to behold. If not, this just might be the key that wins you over. The returning star, Denyce Graves, has amassed a raft of distinguished work throughout a long care–including singing in the rotunda of the nation's capital on September 25, 2020, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a devoted opera lover and friend of Graves, lay in state. She can now add stage director to the other roles she has mastered and, if she so chooses, will undoubtedly enjoy numerous other successes in that capacity.
Carmen, presented by Minnesota Opera, runs through May 22, 2022, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $35.00 - $175.00. Youth tickets (age 20 and below) available at Patron Services, $20.00. Rush tickets: unsold tickets 90 minutes before performance time are half price; Youth Rush tickets (age 20 and below) are $10.00. A $3.00 facility fee is added to all tickets. For tickets and information, please call 612-333-6699 or visit www.mnopera.org.
Music: Georges Bizet; Libretto: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy based on the novella by Prosper Méremée; Conductor: Elias Grandy; Stage Director: Denyce Graves; Associate Director & Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel; Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design: Oana Botez; Lighting Design: Amith Chandrashaker and Robert Wierzel; Hair and Make-Up Design: Priscilla Bruce; Fight Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Intimacy Director and Assistant Fight Director: Alessandra Bongiardina; Chorus and Youth Chorus Director: Matthew Abernathy; Assistant Youth Chorus Director: Sara Sawyer; Répétiteurs: Lara Bolton and Eric McEnaney; French diction coach: Cecile Crozat-Zawisza; Assistant Stage Director: Emily Bishai; Production Stage Manager: Emily Butzi.
Cast: Mia Athey (Mercedes), Leah Brzyski (Frasquita), Won Whi Choi (Done José *), Benjamin Dutcher (Lillas Pasta), Charles H. Eaton (Morales), Symone Harcum (Micaëla), Allen Michael Jones (Zuniga), Aaron Keeney (Escamillo), Maya Lahyani (Carmen *), Joséph Leppek (Remendado), Conor McDonald (Dancaïre), Rafael Moras (Don José *), Zoie Reams (Carmen *), Daniel Volovets (guitarist),