There's a reason Viagra commercials use music from Carmen. Georges Bizet's erotically charged melodrama of a passionate gypsy and her pack of panting lovers is the old story of the little head telling the big head what to do. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' latest version of Carmen opened this summer's season at the Loretto-Hilton theater this past Saturday night. Director Tim Ocel's big and little heads have both done some fine work; he tastefully cranks the musk up to maximum in a satisfying, libidinous, entertaining and carefully thought-out production of this timeless classic.
Ocel has a lot to work with. Jennifer Dudley, the sweet-voiced soprano who plays Carmen, was an actress before she became a singer and her acting ability is the solid beam on which this production is erected. Carmen is usually portrayed as a crass sexual manipulator. Dudley's Carmen is much deeper and more nuanced. This Carmen can rev up pure sexual energy when it is in her interest. But Dudley's intricate characterization subtly shifts, and in unguarded moments a tension emerges between the libido queen and a woman trapped into playing that role to protect herself from a male-dominated Iberian culture.
Like Dudley, John Bellemer, who plays José, the soldier who falls in love with Carmen, eschews the usual histrionic acting style associated with opera. His naturalistic, low-key performance relies on the intimacy of the Loretto-Hilton's thrust stage and elevates José from the jealous dawg he's often played as to a more complex and conflicted character.
This uncontrived and almost anti-operatic style extends to nearly all of the singing in this production. The entire cast forgoes, for the most part, grand vocal gestures -- a brave sacrifice for young singers trying to make their bones in the demanding world of opera. As a result, the beautiful Spanish folk tunes on which Bizet built his score underpin the emotional power of the performances. Both Dudley and Bellemer are velvet-voiced and can go from ardent to innocent and back again in a heartbeat. What their duets and solo arias give up in contrived power they gain in dramatic effect. Their duets, like most of the production's trios, quartets and other small-group singing, are dramatically understated and harmonically flawless. Dean Williamson conducts and the veteran Saint Louis Symphony musicians in the pit provide a bright, crisp backdrop for the singers.
The lead singers' restraint holds true for an exceptional supporting cast as well. Lauren Skuce as Micaela, José's chaste and pious wannabe wife; Tim Mix as Zuniga, José's arrogant upper-class superior officer; and Carmen's krewe of girlfriends (sung by Kate Lindsey and Alyson Cambridge) and fellow smugglers (Christopher Hutton and Arthur Espiritu) all keep it real without sacrificing musicality or emotional power. Even Kyle Peterson, who plays Escamillo, the preening bullfighter who finally steals Carmen from José, avoids overreaching. This is particularly difficult to pull off while strutting around in a suit of lights or turning out a tavern by bragging about how chicks dig matadors.
All Opera Theatre productions are performed in English. Ocel took the axe to Nell and John Moody's translation of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy's original French libretto. He collaborated with his cast and OTSL singing coach Erie Mills, emerging with a script that flows and purrs. Like the rest of the production, it's unforced and down to earth. A fine balance is struck between colloquial dialogue and the slightly more formal language in which the songs are couched. Again the result is an element of realism rarely achieved -- or, for that matter, attempted -- in opera.
The staging eloquently restates this aesthetic. Erhard Rom's set is elegant in its simplicity and converts nearly effortlessly into the four diverse (two indoor, two outdoor) scenes. Mark McCullough's stark, minimalist lighting focuses the strong lines and hard angles of the sets, yet skillfully evanesces from day to night, urban to rural, indoor to outdoor. But it's wig designer Tom Watson and costumer Pat Seyller who have done the yeoman offstage work on this show.
In the opening scene, Carmen is working in a cigar factory. Rolling cigars in a crowded plant in the steamy Seville summer is wilting work, and the all-woman crew is lax about remaining in the confining clothing of proper nineteenth-century ladies. So lax, in fact, that the soldiers stationed outside are not, in the name of propriety, allowed in. The first big moment in the opera occurs when, in response to a knife fight between Carmen and another worker, the factory is emptied of what José describes as "300 screaming, half-naked women." Here Watson's post-coital, pre-air-conditioning hairdos and Seyller's bodice selections from the Victoria's Secret Latin Lace Collection exude carnality, bringing more cleavage to the Loretto-Hilton's stage than a D-cup Night at PT's.
This, Carmen's first appearance, establishes a level of eroticism that is heightened throughout the evening. It reaches new levels with her lascivious flamenco in Act Two (for which a world-class flamenco dancer was brought in to coach Dudley). The temperature rises when Carmen strips to petticoats and chemise backstage at the bullfight, then lovingly dresses Escamillo in his bullfighter's suit of lights. All of this climaxes in a pulsing rush of sexualized violence when she's stabbed to death in Escamillo's bed, straddled by her former lover José in one of the most torrid stagings of this erotically charged death scene.
In order to survive, Opera Theatre must serve two audiences. An international audience of opera buffs flocks to St. Louis to see OTSL's annual premieres and rarely performed operas. The chance to perform before this influential crowd draws gifted singers and fine opera craftsmen to town. Most of the tickets are sold, however, to a local audience that's not interested in academic opera: We think opera should be entertainment. Ocel's exceptional production fills both needs.