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Monday, Oct. 15, 2012

Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ Still Dazzles

Florentine Opera brings the masterpiece to the stage

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“Carmen is a woman meant only for love and death.” These were the ominous words that Prosper Merimee used to describe the coarse Gypsy character he authored in his grungy 1845 novella. Yet Carmen’s name would soon dazzle the world’s imagination as the nucleus of Bizet’s addictively compelling opera. First staged in 1875, Carmen is a dazzling masterpiece overflowing in the warm Andalusian and flamenco melodies of southern Spain. Merimee’s Carmen is a rough-hewn, less sympathetic characterization than her colorfully fleshed out, three-dimensional counterpart in Bizet’s opera, and yet the initial reviews for Bizet’s work were disappointingly indifferent. Perhaps the work was not sanitized enough for audiences of that era.

Bizet’s carefully developed musical context, relentless in its whirlwind intensity, drives the superbly memorable score toward its inevitable tragic denouement. The music’s effortlessly tuneful, casual grace defines the true glory of the composer’s achievement: The melodrama of the story never dominates the music’s captivating tunefulness. The rich Spanish harmonies suffusing the score also soften Carmen’s character, providing her with personal magnetism and charming nonchalance that almost conceal the evil in her coldhearted nature. The music does not address her seamy side directly, allowing the audience to enjoy her on her own terms.

As the drama unfolds, the score changes, the musical merriment giving way to the onset of Don Jose’s downfall. He remains somewhere between a tragic figure and a fool as he becomes obsessed with Carmen. Bizet allows the drama to unfold without permitting the musical texture to stray far from its original concept by becoming pointedly heavy-handed. The foreshadowing of fate never interferes with the Gypsy merriment. Each orchestral interlude seems more of a reprieve than a summation of the events onstage, even as Don Jose’s desperation becomes more apparent as Carmen begins to tire of him.

Hence, while the famously memorable music unabashedly defines Carmen’s blatant sexuality, the framework remains so infectiously melodic that first-time listeners are tempted not to take the drama seriously—a credit to the skill and subtlety with which Bizet allows the tragedy to finally emerge as something of a shock. Each act is preceded by a musical entr’acte, which taken together provide a delightful concert piece performed as the Carmen Suite. The work’s buoyant charm and sly humor are further emphasized by the traditional opera comique format of spoken dialogue between musical passages.

The almost dangerous popularity of Carmen nearly obscures its qualities as an operatic masterpiece of the first rank. The toreador song and Carmen’s blatantly seductive first-act arias, the habanera and the seguidilla, are so infectiously melodic that they invite mimicry. The first-act prelude is a popular showpiece in its own right, dominated by the toreador song, which will accompany far more tragic consequences in the magnificently orchestrated finale, as the fallen Carmen sinks to her death with the toreador music greeting the crowd in the bullfight arena. The dramatic chord signaling Don Jose’s final resolve to kill Carmen is only a counterpoint to the dominant toreador motif closing the opera.

The music stands on its own and has long been a favorite even at pop concerts. The character of Don Jose sets the emotional energy of the opera in motion, even though the music enveloping him is from Carmen’s Gypsy milieu. With Don Jose surrounded by music from a world hostile and foreign to his own, the finale becomes bone chilling in its startling intensity—if performed by a talented cast.

William Florescu, general director of the Florentine Opera, is only too aware of the level of acting demanded nowadays by opera audiences. Audrey Babcock, who raised eyebrows with her erotic Maddalena in Rigoletto, heads his sexy cast. The lithe and handsomely intense Noah Stewart, noted for his “lustrous voice” on several CDs, makes his Florentine debut as Don Jose. The lovely Rena Harms, memorable as Liu in Turandot, appears as Micaela. Florescu promises a “scorching” yet traditional staging as befits the score. Judging from cast photos and performance reviews, this will be a Carmen to be savored and treasured.

The Florentine Opera presents
Carmen Oct. 26 and Oct. 28 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Uihlein Hall.
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