When Georges Bizet's Carmen premiered in 1875, Parisian audiences were outraged that the opera's title character was a cigarette-smoking, overtly sexual woman who discarded her male lovers like picked flowers. The fact that the story ended with Carmen's onstage murder only added to patrons' contempt for the controversial work. Stung by his countrymen's rejection, Bizet died of illness on the night of his opera's 33rd performance.
Fortunately for contemporary audiences, French condescension didn't prevent Bizet's most famous work from becoming what is today the world's most popular opera. Neither could injury, illness or death--even though those have been all-too-real factors in Opera Colorado's current production: Leading lady and mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon suffered a broken arm in rehearsal and gamely performed the title role with her left arm secured in a well-disguised sling; tenor Patrick Denniston battled a viral infection as he rehearsed the demanding part of Don Jose; and ten days before opening night, the entire Opera Colorado family suffered the death of its legendary music director, Louise Sherman. Her husband, company founder and artistic director Nathaniel Merrill, staged this production in Sherman's memory.
And it's fitting that the highlight of this production is Merrill's sumptuous staging. For throughout the three-and-one-quarter-hour evening, Merrill creates several painterly stage pictures that epitomize his incomparable ability to translate the high art of opera into the common language of the theater. In fact, Merrill once set a modern-day record that still stands, breathing new directorial life into no fewer than 48 operas during his 29 years at New York's Metropolitan Opera.
After a rousing overture featuring many of the opera's famous musical themes (the splendid Christian Badea conducts the often-superb Colorado Symphony), Don Jose (Denniston), a corporal in the Spanish army, begins the action by pledging his love to a country girl, Micaela (Elizabeth Biggs). Soon, Carmen tries to seduce Jose, who initially resists the temptress and vows in his mother's name to love Micaela. Cad that he is, however, Jose can't keep his promise for longer than about thirty seconds. The remainder of the opera consists of detailing Jose's obsession with Carmen, who strings along the hapless soldier while simultaneously pursuing yet another lover, the dashing toreador Escamillo (Bradley Garvin).
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Redmon is as credible a Carmen as can be expected from a singer whose mobility and energy are understandably in short supply. She delicately colors her arias with a lilting voice that clearly communicates her character's flirtatious free spirit. Garvin makes an appealing toreador, rising head and shoulders above his colleagues with a towering stage presence and resonant bass-baritone. As the spurned country girl, lyric soprano Biggs nearly steals the show. And local favorite Emily Herrera shines in her cameo appearance as Carmen's friend, Frasquita.
But the opening-night spectators reserved their highest accolades for Merrill last Saturday night, rising almost as one when the director appeared on stage to take his customary opening-night curtain call. The audience's generous applause for Merrill's labor of love brought to mind the words of another Frenchman, director Antonin Artaud, who once declared that "an actor is an athlete of the heart." Words from an old master that Merrill has, by staging this heroic production, characteristically imbued with new meaning.--Lillie
Carmen, through March 1 at the Buell Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 830-8497.