As is its custom, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis will mount four productions between now and the end of June. This, OTSL's 37th season, brings performances of Alice in Wonderland, Carmen, Così Fan Tutte and Sweeney Todd. Unlike, say, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (which, like OTSL, calls Webster University home), St. Louis' renowned opera company packs 30 shows into a five-week window from mid-May to late June, sprinkling productions over the calendar like a Dadaist on meth. But although the schedule looks random, it's anything but. Imagine a chimpanzee running an investment company. Now imagine Warren Buffett running Berkshire Hathaway. OTSL is Berkshire Hathaway. With really cool costumes.
Which explains why Carmen raised the curtain on 2012 at the Loretto-Hilton Center this past Saturday (as it did in 2004), and why performances of George Bizet's tuneful masterpiece comprise one-third of OTSL's current season.
Fortunately, Carmen, whose roots go all the way back to an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, is among popular culture's most malleable stories. Moviemakers love it. In fact, it has been adapted for film more than 70 times, from D.W. Griffith's silent Carmen to Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954), which featured a black cast headed up by Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl Bailey. Carmen, Baby, a soft-core porn version filmed in 1967, portrays the title character as an "international swinger" (the scene with an extraordinarily long-necked Chianti bottle is not to be missed). And 2002 brought us MTV's Carmen, a Hip Hopera, starring Beyoncé Knowles and Mos Def.
The opera's original plot revolves around the title heroine, a gypsy who seduces a naive Spanish country boy, Don José — convincing him to abandon his fiancée, go AWOL from the military and commit murder — only to ditch him for Escamillo, a hot young matador.
Here Stephen Barlow, a seasoned opera director making his OTSL debut, stages the opera as a vintage noir thriller, updating the backdrop to Franco-era Spain. Paul Edwards (sets and costumes) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting) are completely on board with the genre flip right from the get-go; the show opens with filmed black-and-white screen credits rolling across a giant billboard as the pit orchestra delivers a Hollywood-style rendition of Bizet's famous overture. Sets and costumes alike are rendered wholly in chiaroscuro, with a single eye-catching deviation snuck into every scene — a rose on Carmen's bosom, a deck of cards that augur her demise, fuck-me pumps on which she plays "castanets" in the bar scene, and, finally, the gun that shoots her dead in the finale.
Kendall Gladen, a Roosevelt High School grad and alumna of OTSL's young artists Program, sings Carmen, stalking her male prey in a wardrobe that Billie Holiday would have envied. Her voice has a lush, velvety base that she uses to great effect. Despite battling a sinus infection, Gladen coaxed extraordinary emotional range from her vocals. Adam Diegel's sensitive nuance is a fine fit for love-addled Don José, and Aleksey Bogdanov's robust and melodic rendering of uncomplicated Escamillo is spot-on. Of all the supporting roles, though, Corinne Winters' portrayal of Micaëla, Don José's childhood sweetheart and jilted bride-to-be, is the standout. Her crystalline arias evoke a pungent mix of innocence and the power of moral rectitude. By far the most petite and fragile-looking member of the cast, she utterly dominates the stage every time she opens her mouth to sing.
Opera Theatre has made its name by performing all of its productions in English — a rarity in the genre that, coupled with topnotch production values, has put St. Louis on the map in a big way. But any work written or performed in translation carries some risk, and this Carmen trips over itself more than once. Still, Bizet's music and the lyrics of librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy have given us what may be the most popular operas in history, and OTSL has proven itself more than up to the task (and more than once). Next time around perhaps the company will consider staging it in Forest Park.
Carmen at the Muny? At the very least it would stand a chance of eclipsing the otherwise ineradicable vision of our on-screen heroine grinding on her Chianti longneck.