After kicking off with a cheerily conventional, highly entertaining Barber of Seville, Arizona Opera kicks its season into high gear with a superb, much less conventional staging of Carmen. Maybe because of its lurid tabloid plot, Bizet's masterpiece, regarded as scandalous when it premièred just months before the composer's death in 1875, has always had a special appeal for the 20th century; artists ranging from Oscar Hammerstein II to Jean-Luc Godard have created adaptations of it. Arizona Opera's production likewise dresses the heroine in modern clothes -- there are times when, with earplugs, you could believe you were at a Madonna concert. But La Carmencita looks completely comfortable in this finery, and entirely ready to destroy men's lives.
It's still the same old story. Carmen, the beautiful, fickle, flirty gypsy, works in a cigarette factory and doubles occasionally as a smuggler. Arrested for brawling, she sweet-talks Don Jose, the innocent young Basque soldier who's been put in charge of detaining her, into letting her escape. He serves a jail term for his crime, but when he gets out, Carmen rewards him: They become lovers, for a while. By the time he's assaulted an officer and deserted his regiment -- not to mention Michaela, the hometown simp who loves him -- to be with Carmen and her fellow smugglers, she's lost interest in him, preferring the dashing bull fighter Escamillo. Needless to say, things don't end well.
Nothing here that couldn't happen in the '40s, or two weeks ago, or two weeks from now (it actually sounds sort of like a New Times cover story, come to think of it). When we say that a work seems modern, we mean one of two things: either that it's topical, in which case it's just as likely to be dated in a year or two, or that it speaks directly to our emotions in ways that other old works do not, in which case what we really mean is that it's timeless. This production, originally designed by Marie-Jeanne Lecca for Minnesota Opera, shows that Carmen is modern in the second sense. It's performed on an expressionistic set and in the costumes of mid-century Franco-era Spain, and there's nothing in Bizet's peerlessly romantic music (unsurprisingly, it was Tchaikovsky's favorite opera) or in the decidedly unromantic, gritty text that feels even slightly anachronistic in this context.
The set is a raked platform with a broad white wall running across the top of it. Set in this wall is a little door through which, if memory serves, only the title character ever enters or exits. This door seems meant to symbolize the capricious freedom of which she sings so often, and this makes for an especially potent bit of business near the end of the powerhouse final act.
Of course, the most artful staging in the world would be of little use if the show wasn't up to snuff musically. But the November 3 cast (per the company's usual practice, two sets of leads are alternated throughout the run) brought the tale to lush life. Bradley Garvin, as Escamillo, gives an amusingly self-impressed rendition of the familiar "Toreador Song" while his adoring public salaams before him. Jeffrey Springer is smashing as Don Jose -- in the "Flower Song" and in his final confrontation with Carmen, he's simply overpowering. The November 3 Carmen, Buffy Baggot, looks sensational, sings even better and can act besides. With her vocal purity contrasted by the tigerish impatience of her body language, there's nothing implausible about the idea that men would throw their lives away for her favors.
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