Minnesota Opera has a special history with Bizet’s torrid masterpiece “Carmen.” The production that the company opened in the spring of 1991 was more than a box-office success. Here was perhaps the foremost Carmen of her generation, the charismatic mezzo Denyce Graves. And here was a vivid staging by Keith Warner with provocative sets by Marie-Jeanne Lecca and a production overall that seemed to signal Minnesota Opera’s coming of age, an effort that pointed toward the kind of smartly directed, dramatically informed but not necessarily avant-garde productions that the company hoped to present in ensuing seasons. Gone was the image of a company in perpetual transition. No more identity crises. “Carmen” was the future.
It would be nice to report that the company’s new “Carmen,” unveiled at the Ordway Center on Saturday as the season’s final production, moves forward, offering a compelling vision for the next 20 years. It doesn’t. It does have an illuminating performance by Nora Sourouzian in the title role, and that’s no small accomplishment. And the Escamillo, Kyle Ketelsen, is terrific. But our Don José, Rafael Davila, while displaying a powerful tenor and impressive stamina, doesn’t have the acting chops to bring this complicated character to life and to give the final murder scene the thrust it needs.
The production looks drab and colorless. The opening crowd scene is badly staged. The cigarette girls simply walk to the front of the stage, stare at the conductor and sing — like they used to do in the bad old days when operas were hardly directed at all.
Director Michael Cavanagh and his team update the action to Spain in 1975. Dictator Francisco Franco has just died, as the wall posters tell us. Franco leaves behind him an ugly, exhausted culture, symbolized by the grimy corrugated tin walls that adorn the stage in various shapes as the evening progresses (designs by Erhard Rom). It is all dimly lit (Mark McCullough), except the final scene. And, we ask our costumer, Jessica Jahn, did women really wear dresses as unattractive and ill-fitting as these back in 1975?
None of this adds to our understanding of “Carmen.” Cavanagh tells us in a note that our doom-haunted gypsy symbolizes the “modern woman” newly made free in the wake of Franco’s death — a type, in other words. But Carmen isn’t a type. She’s a free spirit, the same woman in 1875 that she would be a century later. The story is about this free spirit’s fatal clash, not with political repression, but with the obsessive, ultimately murderous love of Don José. It’s really his story, not hers. He, in fact, narrates the novella upon which the opera was based.
On the plus side was Sourouzian’s Carmen, a subtle portrayal of an attractive, sexy, confident young woman who knows exactly who she is and what she wants. It’s clear, too, that this particular Carmen doesn’t love Don José and never did. She saw him as a challenge, someone to tease, but he became an irritant and then a threat. Sourouzian moved onstage with easy, tiger-like grace and brought to the vocal line a richly colored, evenly produced mezzo with sensitive inflections of the text.
Davila’s “Flower Song” was beautifully shaped, and it ended softly, as it’s supposed to, but very few tenors are able to do it. What was lacking in his Don José was a sense of the character’s increasing frenzy and derangement. We needed at the end to be afraid of him rather than feel sorry for him.
Playing Micaela, the good girl from back home, Marita K. Solberg sang with sincere charm and vivacity. And without overdoing it, as is so often the case with Escamillo, Ketelsen made an appropriately cocky toreador, and he sang the part — usually too high for basses and too low for baritones — with booming, resonant sound and no apparent strain. The smaller parts were engagingly performed as well: Frasquita (Siena Forest), Mercedes (Bergen Baker) and Morales (Gerard Michael D’Emilio).
Conductor Michael Christie drew a vital performance from the excellent chorus and enforced a brisk pace to the show — a little too brisk in the case of the second-act quintet, which became a blur. Wisely, he used Bizet’s original version with dialogue rather than the later edition with recitatives prepared after Bizet died.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer.