Waiting for the curtain to rise on Boston Lyric Opera’s season-opening revival of Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen, I was fully prepared to be shocked, outraged, confused, irritated and/or disgusted. It’s all but impossible to be an opera aficionado in the 21st century without being aware of the Catalan stage director’s notoriety as a provocateur, enfant terrible, bête noire and other continental terms denoting an artistic rebel-without-a-cause. As noted in the Carmen program book, Bieito made his debut in 2004 with a production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail that graphically depicted fellatio, rape and torture; he has been blithely scandalizing the operatic establishment ever since. Though BLO and revival director Joan Anton Rechi carefully defended Bieito against his detractors (see interview with BMInt here), many of the marketing materials surrounding this revival and its twin production in San Francisco made much of the auteur’s legend in order to ramp up audience interest. It’s an understandable sales tactic—after all, stark depictions of the reliable commodities of sex and violence constitute Bieito’s stock-in-trade.
Gratifyingly or disappointingly, depending on one’s perspective, I left the Boston Opera House on Friday night having experienced none of the jarring symptoms of theatrical malaise I’d been warned against and/or promised. In BLO’s hands, the production proved challenging, flawed but coherent, dramatically effective and often exciting, and not just in a titillating sense.
In this judiciously abbreviated version of Bizet’s classic (much of the spoken dialogue is cut), and the action takes place in Ceuta, the Spanish autonomous city located at the far end of North African coast. The opening scene reveals an unmistakably masculine environment: a group of military men stand watching a comrade doing punishment laps, clad in nothing but a pair of combat boots and sweat-drenched tighty-whiteys. A large wooden flagpole equipped with thick, noose-worthy rope towers over the ensemble. The set piece provides a neat double-image, recalling both a phallus and a gibbet, helping to illustrate the drunken Lillas Pastia’s opening pronouncement, “L’amour c’est comme la mort.”
Throughout the show, Alfons Flores’s set remains spare, yet impressive. A large backdrop of a bull overshadows the scene during the final two acts, until it is dismantled in a simple but startling coup de theâtre—in 2016, it’s nice to hear a gasp from audience members convinced that they can by surprised by nothing. In the second and third acts, a small fleet of Mercedes-Benz cars roll onstage, their headlights glaring straight at the audience for a moment or two as they drive. It’s an assault on the senses, to be sure, though it certainly succeeds in immersing the audience deep into the world of the opera. Mercè Paloma’s costumes seem geared toward flattering the male figure rather than the female; clad in loud, bargain-basement ensembles, the women’s costumes appear to wear the performers rather than the other way around. The men, by contrast, are set-off well in form-fitting military uniforms and suits. The effect privileges the beauty of the male figure over that of the female; in a plot that revolves around the violence of a man maddened by the allure of a woman, the aesthetic choice—intentional or not—seems somewhat counterintuitive, though certainly intriguing.
Bieito reveals a cinematic sensibility in his penchant for creating visually striking stage pictures; in a particularly thrilling moment, the 70-strong crowd of bullring spectators charge a just-strung rope line in time with the orchestra as it swells, leading up to the iconic toreador march in “Les voici! Voici la quadrille!” As the spectators cheer, we experience the parade of bullring heroes not as a literal depiction, but rather as reflected in the faces of the bloodthirsty, sport-maddened crowd.
Less successful scenes include the “moon-baptism” that opens the third act, during which a young toreador strips naked and exposes himself to a bull as a superstitious ritual before the bullfight. According to the directors, this added sequence has its origins in actual Spanish custom; in the context of the production, however, replete as it is with constant reminders of primal male sexuality, it comes across at best as unnecessary and at worst as baffling. Indeed, to anyone who didn’t pore over the program notes, the sight of a dimly lit nude man slapping his thighs before a giant silhouette of a bull reads more as an allusion to a Spanish version of Equus than anything to do with the story at hand.
Bieito takes great pains to depict Ceuta as a realm of unfettered primal instincts; in keeping with his reputation, sometimes he goes too far. In a show in which soldiers rush a phone both in order to trap their sexual prey, then tie and hoist a scantily clad female up the phallus/flagpole, it seems unnecessary that the lieutenant must then thrust his groin repeatedly into the ground or that the troops need to massage their nether-regions as they survey women leaving a cigarette factory. I would imagine than anyone naïve enough to miss the point at that juncture is probably too young to attend the performance in the first place.
Jennifer Johnson Cano brought a dark, Horne-esque mezzo-soprano and an understated insolence to the title role. Her somewhat emotionally distant Carmen holds something back from her lovers, offering all of her body but only bits and pieces of her heart. It’s an atypical take on this hot-blooded siren, perhaps more in keeping with Franz Wedekind than Prosper Merimée, yet not ineffective in this context. Johnson Cano seemed almost haunted at times; lying on the ground facing away from the desperate Don José in Act II, she seemed determined to live in a world all her own, untouched by and perhaps protected from her lover’s frantic pleas.
Roger Honeywell made a nontraditional choice as José, a green young man—a mama’s boy, even—experiencing the throes of uncontrollable passion for the first time. A mature stage presence, Honeywell comes across as the type who would have been too sensible to succumb to Carmen’s charms if it weren’t for the fact that the libretto tells him to act otherwise. Though the tenor boasts an emotionally engaged sound—“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” particularly touched us—his José made a strikingly pathetic figure onstage. Whether by default or directorial design, the doomed soldier-turned-gypsy reads as perpetually ineffectual, both as a lover and as a member of Ceuta’s toxically masculine culture. To whit: in Bieito’s staging, José mounts Carmen during their Act IV confrontation—seemingly about to commit rape. Overcome by despair and perhaps momentarily stricken by conscience, he gets up and backs away, unable to possess the object of his desire even by force. In this amoral, testosterone-infused landscape, perhaps it makes a kind of oblique sense to José that the only way to save his pride is to end Carmen’s life, thus spoiling her for anyone else. It is a shame that Johnson Cano and Honeywell were not able to muster enough tension for this scene to be truly riveting; to be sure, the bare stage does not help them—Carmen hardly seems trapped in such a wide open space—though the confrontation made for a rather lackluster close to an otherwise high-energy evening.
Soprano Chelsea Basler, an admirable Micaëla, boasted a sweet, warm timbre in her middle and low registers and a brilliant, steely top. Basler’s exceptionally well-sung Act III showpiece, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” alas felt somewhat marred by the excess of stage business Bieito, Rechi and associates insist on giving her. (Micaëla’s scene with José in Act I was similarly burdened, including a moment in which the couple got a cheap laugh by taking a selfie—the second time I have seen this superfluous reference to contemporary culture on the operatic stage in the past three months.) Less saintly than in other productions, this Micaëla brought a competitive sensuality of her own, making an “in your face” gesture at Carmen as she leads José from the gypsy camp in Act III.
The cartoonishly masculine, granite-jawed Michael Mayes brought a shyster’s swagger and a robust sound as Escamillo. He and Johnson Cano beautifully matched as a musical and theatrical pair so much so that it seemed obvious that Carmen and José had been wasting time on each other from the beginning; Johnson Cano shared chemistry with Mayes to a degree that was never even hinted at in her interactions with Honeywell. The melding of Mayes’ dark chocolate baritone and Johnson Cano’s caramel mezzo only confirmed that the toreador and the gypsy were made for each other.
Standouts among the supporting cast included Liam Moran’s Zuniga, whose every action simmered with the promise of imminent violence. Of all the male actors, Moran best embodied the volatile world of unfettered sexual rapacity that Bieito seeks to portray. With the additional power of his vigorous bass sound, Moran’s palpably animalistic stage presence seemed to pose a genuine threat to the physical safety of any female onstage. Actor Yusef Lambert, a colorful addition, embodied anarchic glee as the gypsy Lillas Pastia. Bieito’s choice to add a prepubescent girl (Lily Waters) to the gypsy band was an inspired touch; the wide-eyed young actress served as a kind of apprentice to the trio of Carmen, Mércèdes and Frasquita, with the clear implication that the child’s fate is as cruel and inescapable as anyone’s in this harsh landscape.
David Angus led the Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra in a spirited, technically precise account, though one yearned for a bit more fire here and there throughout their reading of one of Western music’s most unabashedly sensual scores. The superb ensemble, under the direction of chorusmaster Michelle Alexander, acquitted themselves with energy and aplomb, giving strong vocal and dramatic performances despite the abundance of active stage business required by the production.
Given Bieito’s track record for Regietheater gone wild it would have been easy to accuse BLO of choosing spectacle for its own sake as a means to generate buzz around its new season; 2016-2017 not only represents the company’s 40th anniversary, but also its debut at the Boston Opera House, a the former vaudeville palace in which opera had such a brief run in Caldwell’s days. It is a move that bodes well for the genre’s future in our city; as Opera News noted in 2013, our city has had a conflicted relationship with opera, achieving the status of a true international hub for limited periods throughout the past century. True to its current name, the former Keith Memorial Theater provides a natural habitat for the opera genre; though Carmen is its only such engagement in the venue this season, one hopes that BLO will eventually be able to return “home” permanently. A nationally recognized company deserves—and indeed, requires—a larger, more acoustically alive space than BLO formerly suffered at the relatively cramped Shubert. Moreover, though my seat in the third row on Friday night all but guaranteed a perfect view of the stage, previous experience of the tall, open Opera House allows me to state that the venue’s sightlines from any vantage point are vastly preferable to those at the Shubert.
In all, BLO’s choice to marry newly expanded real estate opportunities with artistic daring is a choice that pays off; it would appear that its fifth decade is off to a strong start.
Carmen repeats September 25th, 30th and October 2nd at the Boston Opera House.