The black, white, and smoky-grey world of film noir fit Bizet’s “Carmen” like a glove in the production that the Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented on June 16th at the Loretto-Hilton Center. The color scheme was part of an updated look that brought Seville into the 1940s where day-jobbers, factory girls, and small-time criminals (replacing the traditional gypsy element of the story) mixed it up on the streets on a daily basis. All of the sexual tension between men and women (intimidation by one side and then the other) became palpable in this production in part because of the sets and costumes designed by Paul Edwards and the lighting of Christopher Akerlind was all of a piece, starting with the wire-meshed fence and large billboard that separated the cigarette factory where Carmen and her cohorts worked from the public street.
The haughty Carmen in this production was Kendall Gladen, a young Missouri native who has had much success singing this role with San Francisco Opera and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Her Carmen prowled about the stage and draped herself atop a piano with a sexy allure, but her voice needed a little more power and sultriness.
Carmen’s primary target, at the beginning of the opera was Don José (Adam Diegel), a young officer whose fate was sealed with a rose. Diegel’s acting superbly conveyed the conflicted nature of Don José, but Diegel’s singing was either really loud or really soft. It would have been more pleasing and effective to have heard some gradations between the extremes. As Carmen’s second conquest, Escamillo, Aleksey Bogdanov did a fine job of backing up the toreador’s swagger with a strong bass-baritone. But it was the gorgeous and persuasive singing of Corinne Winter in the role of Michaëla that almost stole the show. *Winter embodied the winsome hometown girl who desperately tried to pull Don José away from his fixation on Carmen. Her performance went straight to the heart, and she won the loudest and longest applause after the opera finished.
As part of this updated production, the petty criminals smuggled illegal aliens instead of contraband. That worked fairly well, but a bit of the scene became static, because everyone was bottled up in the bar and no one got to go over the dangerous mountain passes. This also meant that some of the music was cut. Yet overall, Stephen Barlow’s stage directions were crisp and evocative. But early on, Gladen leapt from the catwalk next to the billboard to the stage floor in high heels. It must have been a distance of three feet. Even though she landed cleanly, the jump seemed very reckless, because she could have sprained or broken her ankles. In any event, her feet must have taken a beating. Another oddity in the opera was the choice of a red pistol that was used by Don José to kill Carmen. The red color tied nicely to the red rose that Carmen gave to Don José, but the weapon looked too much like a plastic water pistol.
Conductor Carlos Izcaray brought out a lot of textures and colors from the orchestra, which had a smaller contingent than the orchestras of larger opera houses. That meant that weightier side of the music, such as the heavy theme of fate, sounded too light-weight. Darn it. The chorus (trained by chorus master Robert Ainsley) sang exceptionally well. It was interesting to hear “Carmen” sung in English. Sometimes the language in the translation (by Amanda Holden) seemed too prosaic, but all in all, with quibbles aside, this production of “Carmen,” though uneven, was still satisfying.
Photo credit: Ken Howard