Story: The women who work in the cigarette factory in Seville, Spain like to banter with the aimless men who hang around outside their business. In particular, the lusty gypsy Carmen flirts with the guys by casually mentioning she’s in the market for a new lover. She turns her eye on a junior officer named Don Jose, who has come to Seville from the country and left behind his mother and a sweetheart named Micaela. Don Jose’s superior, Zuniga, orders him to arrest Carmen after she allegedly pulls a knife on another worker, but she instead seduces Don Jose into letting her escape. He subsequently is imprisoned for dereliction of duty.
When Don Jose returns from jail, he hooks up with Carmen at a club called Lillas Pastia’s Inn, where Carmen and her friends Mercedes and Pasquita perform. Carmen mocks Don Jose, who then assaults Zuniga when the latter arrives and pursues Carmen. She also becomes the object of affection of bullfighting hero Escamillo. As Don Jose sinks deeper into his obsessive love for Carmen, he threatens to kill anyone who gets in his way as well as vowing to murder Carmen if she continues to rebuke him.
Highlights: Georges Bizet’s famous 19th century opera, which he based on an 1845 novel of the same name by Prosper Merimee, is given vibrant new life in a clever film noir style conceived by director Stephen Barlow. Updating the setting to 1940s Seville works seamlessly in establishing Carmen as the type of femme fatale depicted in the novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain that translated beautifully to the silver screen.
In fact, Barlow’s fanciful treatment includes a clever delivery of the production’s titles on a screen imposed on the stage while the overture is being performed by musicians in the superior Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra -- in black and white, naturally. Combined with the impressive abilities of St. Louis native daughter Kendall Gladen in the title role and no fewer than nine of the principal 11 roles taken by Gerdine Young Artists or former Gerdine Young Artists, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ third rendition of Carmen (others were produced in 1987 and 2004) is a stirring and resounding presentation.
Other Info: The film noir look is handsomely rendered by Paul Edwards’ scenic design, which incorporates a ‘40s-style billboard seen through the smoke-filled surroundings of the factory in one scene and the sinfully colorful allure of Lillas Pastia’s Inn in another. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting subtly underscores the look, whether with a single shard of light that accentuates the eyes of a billboard model or the darker look espoused in the nightclub. Edwards’ costumes blend the traditional attire of gypsies with the hats and suits of film noir gangsters as well as the flamboyant garb of the toreador, complemented with the wigs and makeup design of Ashley Ryan.
Carmen features the first OTSL starring role for Kendall Gladen, who joined the company’s Monsanto Artist-in-Training program at age 16 and made her OTSL debut in 2001’s The Grand Duchess of Gerostein. Despite OTSL general director Timothy O’Leary’s opening night admonition that Gladen was performing with a sinus infection, the mezzo-soprano’s clear and superbly modulated voice belied any serious illness. Additionally, her acting clearly conveyed the title character’s cynicism and reckless pursuit of freedom and the love that she felt embodied it.
Soprano Corinne Winters was a hugely popular audience favorite in the role of the chaste and selfless Micaela, shining on an Act III aria that was a convincing demonstration of her voice’s powerful and persuasive crystalline clarity. Adam Diegel, a South Korean tenor who is one of just two of the primary players without a link to OTSL, showed his own considerable vocal flair as the slow-thinking and fatally impassioned Don Jose, while baritone Hernan Berisso made his OTSL debut a successful one as Don Jose’s colleague Morales.
Bradley Smoak’s resonant bass makes a convincing Zuniga as does baritone Alexsey Bogdanov as the cheerful and playful toreador Escamillo. Providing their own able assistance are Shirin Eskandani and Jennifer Caraluzzi as Carmen’s gal pals Mercedes and Frasquita, respectively, Nikolas Wenzel as proprietor Lillas Pastia, and Thomas Gunther and Michael Kuhn as small-time smugglers Dancairo and Remendado, respectively.
Barlow’s precise, engaging direction masks the production’s three-hours-plus running time, helped by two intermissions as well as some lively choreography staged by Kristina Martinez and convincing fight choreography between Don Jose, Zuniga and Escamillo courtesy of Shaun Sheley.
Conductor Carlos Izcaray’s inspired guidance of the orchestra offers a spirited interpretation of Bizet’s rich, lush, diverse and evocative score. Add Amanda Holden’s English translation of the text by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy with some additional dialogue by Barlow interspersed, and this Carmen is a certain crowd-pleaser for opera aficionados new and accustomed alike.
Group: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: May 23, 25, 31, June 8, 10, 13, 16, 19, 23
Tickets: From $25 to $120; contact 961-0644 or ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard