According to Opera America, over the past few years Carmen has been the most performed opera in this country. There are lots of good reasons. Georges Bizet's music is a prime one: Carmen is chockful of hit tunes. Even if you've never been to the opera, even if you've never sat down and listened to classical music of any kind, you already know most of the tunes in Carmen. Its themes show up in cartoons, commercials and movie soundtracks. They are the standard choice when a hot Spanish feel is needed. The tor-eee-ahhh-dor theme has been parodied more times than Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
The libretto is another reason. Bizet's scriptwriters handed him a play that could almost stand without the music. Set in musically exotic Seville and peopled with a volatile cast of gypsies, smugglers, soldiers and bullfighters, Carmen has plenty of sex and violence and moves inexorably toward its dramatic destiny. The book left Bizet lots of room to do what he did best: write big numbers that cash in on the themes he wove seductively through the show. It is the first Naturalist opera. Before Carmen, operas were about the trials and travails of mythological gods, moral archetypes straight out of Aesop or bourgeois romance. Carmen is the story of a real man who self-destructs over his infatuation with a real woman. It is the classic tale of the little head telling the big head what to do.
In the Union Avenue Opera Theater's current production of Carmen, that man, Don José is played magnificently by Dallas Bono. It's a tough role. The homicidal mama's boy has to be mean and selfish and tender and tragic by turns. Bono does it all. He lets Bizet's soulful tunes take over and makes emotional use of every note. He acts the part with raw physicality that never lets us forget that Don José is a professional soldier, a man of action.
Carmen is a conniving gypsy vixen, seeking a man, almost any man, as a ticket out of the drudgery of her job in a cigarette factory. Jo Rodenburg is an experienced Carmen and certainly has the vocal chops to sing the part. She has swallowed whole the grand gestures and album-cover poses we expect from Carmen. But, even more than Don José, Carmen is a physical part. She is an erotic manipulator. The great Carmens spray pheromones all over the stage. It takes Rodenburg's Carmen a couple of acts to heat up, overcome the initial timidity in her performance and fully inhabit the character.
The supporting cast is a tribute to this little company's tenacity in searching out talented singers who can also act. Denise Wilhelm practically steals the show. She infuses the perfect mixture of innocence and sadness into the role of Michaela, Don José's spurned fiancée. Michael Mayes throws a mean cape as he sings and preens, with manly self-assurance, the part of Escamillo, the Rudolph Valentino of bullfighters.
Union Avenue Christian Church, home of UAOT, offers an intimate setting with vibrant acoustics and is a great place to hear an opera. At $20 for adults and $15 for students/seniors, it may be the best opera bargain in America. This troupe has learned to make the best use of what they have, and the experience is akin to that of seeing opera in one of those legendary small towns in Italy where everyone pitches in to stage an opera once a year. It is an experience well worth having. Enjoy it while you can.