April 25–May 10
Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave
Georges Bizet’s Carmen is all about sex. And sure, sex sells, but Carmen’s huge popularity as an opera extends beyond high kicks and gypsy hips. Supreme melodies and a smart libretto drive some opera fans to rank Carmen with Aida and Don Giovanni as “perfect” operas. On the other hand, it’s easy for productions of Carmen to slip into tackiness with overdone Spanish flair. Either way, it still makes for an entertaining show, which is why I’m left wondering how Houston Grand Opera’s Carmen comes off as so blasé.
The heavy red curtain, embellished in this production with billowing red satin on the bottom, opens with a small-town scene in Seville, Spain. Micaela, a sweet country girl, asks a group of soldiers milling around where she might find a soldier named Don José. In lieu of an answer, the soldiers harass the pretty Micaela, and she runs away. Later she finds Don José and delivers a letter from his mother that says he should marry Micaela, and he vows to honor his mother’s wishes. In the meantime, the soldiers gather to watch some cigarette factory girls take a noon-time break. Carmen emerges like a gypsy queen from the gaggle of girls, swaying her tightly swaddled hips and stomping her cha-cha heels to the famous Habanera. Don José is instantly infatuated, so much so that when Carmen gets arrested for starting a fight in the factory, he lets her go and ends up in jail for her sake. But woe to the man who falls in love with a fiery woman who cherishes her freedom: no sooner does Don José desert the army for Carmen than a devilishly handsome bull fighter named Escamillo spices up the scene. There’s only one way to end this operatic three-way, but Carmen is glorious to the very end, singing “She was born free and free she will die!”
A theater professor once complained to me that in opera none of the characters look the way they should because singing trumps appearance when it comes to casting. Not so in this production: Dashing tenor Brandon Jovanovich sings the role of Don José, the equally arresting bass-baritone Ryan McKinny sings Escamillo, and Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez sizzles in the title role. All three have the vocal chops to match their appropriately good looks. Despite the rare sharp note in the second act, Jovanovich owns Bizet’s tenor line with a golden timbre and easy vibrato. After a disappointing performance as Rigoletto earlier this season, McKinny proves he’s still the swarthy bass-baritone who won me over as Kurwenal in last season’s Tristan and Isolde.
It’s no surprise that Martínez is a Grammy Award winner—this woman has vocal prowess. For the role of Carmen, this is a necessity. But while her singing is pretty spectacular—she has a rare, multi-dimensional instrument that floats effortlessly from swirling dark passion to euphonious whispers of love—it feels like she holds back in this role. Her Habanera lacks that sensual give-and-take rubato, and while she certainly stomps and kicks and whips her skirt up in many a flourish, it comes off as trying too hard instead of simply embodying Carmen in all her natural pluck and pizzazz.
But this might be more the fault of the Scottish–born conductor Rory Macdonald. He is an exacting director, both precise and calculated—admirable traits perhaps better suited to a different opera. The costumes, designed by Julie Weiss, don’t help either. Drab Spanish frills and careless pops of color aside, the worst outfit by far belongs to a dancer portraying a bull. He wears a black silk one-piece that begins at his calves and carries up to his chest where it fastens around his neck with a v-shaped strap. It looks like a poorly-made nip-slip disaster.
Partly making up for the costumes is the marvelous set, designed by David Rockwell, a visual relief made up by simple half-moon walls of white bricks, Spanish tiles, and weathered wood. Lighting designer Donald Holder expertly illuminates the climactic bullfight with an exceptional sunset that perfectly complements the heightened emotion in the final scenes.
A co-production of HGO, San Francisco Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago, Carmen closes HGO’s 2013-2014 season. It comes on the heels of a tremendous production of Das Rheingold—a jaw-dropping example of opera as an art form—which is maybe why this Carmen feels underwhelming. It could be that HGO’s Rheingold is just a hard act to follow. Albert Innaurato’s program note quotes Wagner commending Carmen: “At last! Someone with new ideas!” I doubt Wagner would say the same after seeing this production.