Carmen, the second opera of Castleton Festival’s 2012 season, aired after Friday’s storm left performers, staff, and crew with a cancelled scheduled opening and, for many, 72 hours without power and running water. The amazing thing was that this duck (Castleton) not only kept on paddling but that it could quack at all.
There were three gifts from the top of this Carmen that just kept on giving. The look of the piece in the Castleton production was stunning. Thomas Rogers (set and costumes) and David Howe (lights) created a world that evoked the very essence of Seville. One could almost smell the oranges and feel the heat of the sunbaked, dusty streets.
The production had also set the work in the post World War II era. The factory girls with their bib overalls, cinched waists, and hair pulled back with bandannas looked like sisters of Rosie the Riveter. The soldiers lolled like GIs straight out of a classic war picture of the period. The combination of set, lights, and costumes gave stage director William Kerley unparalleled opportunities for great stage pictures, which he delivered with surefire success.
The music, under Maestro Lorin Maazel’s baton, pulled together, despite some initial false steps from the horns, and soon got us, head bobbing and toe-tapping, to the popular bright martial tunes and the flirtatious trills of the gypsy girl, Carmen. The music, like the work, just kept on getting stronger throughout its four acts.
The vocal discovery for me in the first act came with the understated but beautiful performance of Sasha Djihanian-Archambault who played Micaela, the “good girl,” who comes to Corporal Don José of the Dragoons to coax him back home. This petite and pretty singer packs some serious pipes, and she anchored the first act with her assured stage presence.
Truthfully, in other aspects, there was some tentativeness mixed with stumble-bumbling at the start of this opening performance. Watching Act I of Carmen, one was reminded, or so the story goes, that composer Georges Bizet died broken hearted shortly after the premiere of his work had received a chilly reception in Paris. Had the composer loaded too many challenges to his concept? It was an opera that perhaps took so many risks for its time. I wondered if this production company hadn’t also made some risky choices (starting with turning off and on its rescue generator that had come down from New Jersey so that the show could go on.)
Bizet and librettists based their work on a novel by Prosper Mérimé, telling the story of a gypsy woman who taunts, seduces, then flings away lovers in order to maintain her freedom and a way of life so as not put out her fire. He set the whole work in the steamy sexuality of working-class Seville, a world comprised of soldiers with too much time on their hands and working class, cigarette-sucking factory women who are not above physically bashing each other in order to square disputes. Racy stuff, and hard to pull off in opera with any kind of realism.
Bizet had also used much more spoken dialogue than was usual in an opera, in between lush, popular–style melodies in its example as opera-comique and what we might even classify as a “musical” today. Today, it’s one of the most popular operas on the circuit, but to produce it successfully in America, one has not only to sing in French, but to pull off reams of spoken dialogue with the speed and fluency of a native. Some of the singers were still trying to roll the dialogue out on Sunday.
The real challenge for me in this first act was the performance of Ekaterina Metlova. Albeit a delectable incarnation of Carmen, this Russian mezzo has a voice that might be likened in style to lapshang souchang tea: intense, even smoky, and somewhat of an acquired taste. In her defense, she is a product of a cultural approach to singing technique that puts a different emphasis on vocal placement. In the first act especially, her descending trills were less like the western European “smooth escalator slide” and more like a scrambling descent down the side of Old Rag.
However, when the Act II curtain came up, singers and staging had settled. Everyone seemed to have found new reserves and committed to plumb the heart of their characters in telling the story.
Act II takes place in Lillas Pastia’s Tavern. As the music grows wilder in the tavern, the women in the cast seemed to loosen up. The chorus of women danced deliciously on and off the trestle tables and filled the stage with great color and sound.
Rebecca Nathanson and Nora Graham-Smith joined Metlova for a trio that showed off their voices beautifully together. Then Escamillo (Corey Crider) grabbed the stage and set the bar for the rest of the performance with a great rendition of the famous Torreador Song. His bravado was like a dare to his audiences, on and offstage, to think of him as anything but a star. All this built to a marvelous patter-song where the three women were joined by Darik Knutsen and Dominic Armstrong in a terrific quintet.
At that moment, the star of this production, Richard Troxell, came into his own. Troxell, whose interpretation seemed initially a little elusive and tentative, suddenly tapped into his character of Don José and went for it vocally and dramatically. With equal fervor he played rage and humiliation, and he never backed down from showing us a man who, consumed by passion, becomes an animal. His aria, La fleur que tu m’avais jetée, was a gorgeous, heartfelt revelation by this once strong soldier who’d lost himself in love.
Metlova’s performance also grew in assurance. I began to understand the character (and the stand out voice) as one of an outsider in all ways. There was a rawness about her interpretation that explained Carmen’s capriciousness and even her cruelty. Against a purple night sky, there was a picture of her alone in the mountains, with her shoulders seeming to shudder forth tears and fears she would never show to another, I will never forget.
Then, in Act IV, after Don José had stalked Carmen to town and the bullfighter’s parade, Carmen walked onto the stage, chin tilted and legs astride and locked to face her former lover and death. Even in her shiny black satin short skirt and her white vixen stole, showing she’d come up in the world since bedding with the rock-star toreador Escamillo, she reminded me of the waif Edith Piaf, someone who also played tough to survive. This singer-actress won my sympathies and my admiration.
Against the backdrop of Seville streets outside the bullring, war torn banners streaming and the lights glowing ever more intensely like lust, like hell, the lovers meet one last time. Metlova’s voice, spitting her defiance, came forward and was stunning it was so packed with emotion. By this time, Troxell had channeled Don José so completely, he was part madman, part groveling dog. Together they produced an electrifying end.
The Castleton Festival pulled it off again. And this one’s a stunner.
The Castleton Festival of opera, symphony and musical theatre runs thru July 22, 2012 at 663 Castleton View Rd, Castleton, VA.
Details and tickets
Composed by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Conducted by Loren Maazel
Stage Direction by William Kerley
Produced by Castleton Festival
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running time: 3 hours and 55 minutes with 3 intermissions of 15 minutes