Shortly before setting out to the Santa Fe Opera’s opening night July 1, I rewatched a short clip from August 2018 of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg receiving a standing ovation as she walked to her seat at the opera.
I wasn’t searching for proof of better days—social media offered up the post for undetermined algorithmic reasons—but it underscored the recent dire shift in personal and national politics.
Gloom—as an ambiance—suffused opening night to some degree, as the rain fell, the cloud cover masked the sunset and temperatures dipped to an end-of-summer chilliness.
All this worked well with this year’s production of Carmen, which eschews the typical interpretation of Georges Bizet’s tragic opera.
Based on the novella by Prosper Mérimée, the opera Carmen premiered in Paris in 1875 and at the Santa Fe Opera in 1961. It was last mounted here in 2014, in a production a reviewer for this paper described as “splashy” and “hyper-energetic,” concluding the show provided ample “eye-candy,” but was ultimately shallow.
Making her debut at SFO this season, French director Mariame Clément has taken a decidedly different approach. In press materials accompanying the production, Clément notes the “usual preconception” regarding Carmen is “that it’s a joyful, colorful piece.” In fact, she says, it’s “actually a very dark piece in many respects.”
Carmen (mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard), the opera’s titular character, is a seductive Romani woman who works at a cigarette factory, employs her charms on both Don José, a corporal (played by tenor Matthew White in July in his SFO debut; and Michael Fabiano in August), and toreador Escamillo (bass-baritone Michael Sumuel in his terrific SFO debut). As a result, Carmen seals her fate as foretold in the cards and dies when Don José stabs her at the opera’s conclusion.
The setting—a desolate amusement park, complete with a headless carousel horse—is intended, Clément says, to represent “a mental landscape for Carmen, or a metaphor of her life. You always hear that Carmen is free and the piece is a celebration of freedom. I beg to differ. Yes, she’s free to die in the end. So, it’s a very limited kind of freedom, an illusion of freedom, just like the freedom you experience within the gates of an amusement park.”
If this makes for a headier Carmen than one might expect, Leonard carries the weight, minus the usual flamboyant costuming. This Carmen is subject, not object, and far removed from the novella’s character, whose introduction prompts the narrator to expound upon both her beauty and his larger theory of how to rank a woman’s attractiveness.
Instead, scenic and costume designer Julia Hansen dons Carmen in contemporary clothes (jeans). Similarly, Micaëla, the young woman who loves Don José, sports overalls. Soprano Sylvia D’Eramo, a former SFO apprentice, in that role, sings beautifully, making this season’s Carmen a tremendous showcase for powerful female performers.
Leonard, a three-time Grammy winner, comes to SFO’s Carmen from debuting the role last spring at the Washington National Opera.
In SFO’s podcast series, Destination Santa Fe Opera, Leonard spoke about the rewards and challenges of taking on iconic roles and sifting through the pre-existing source materials and perceptions that can accompany such parts. That’s particularly the case, she said, when it comes to the role of Carmen.
“Of all of the well-known characters, she is somebody that I find that people have a lot of opinions about,” Leonard said. “People sort of take this strangely possessive attitude about who she is…and it’s something we often do in many different societies and cultures in regard to strong women. We start imposing our thoughts on them because we don’t know how to control them.”
Carmen doesn’t escape her fate—the violent Don José takes her life. But the production does signal toward a better tomorrow. Director Clément includes a young girl “who we hope could break the cycle of violence” in which Carmen is caught (Isla Burdette, in her debut, daughter of Kevin Burdette, currently appearing in SFO’s The Barber of Seville. SFO tells me Isla was, in fact, born in Santa Fe during her dad’s run in SFO’s production of Cold Mountain during the summer of 2015).
Who is that little girl? Carmen in the past? Carmen in the future? All of us?
This year’s production provides no easy answers, just beautiful music and plenty about which to ruminate.
8:30 pm, July 6, 9, 15, 22
8 pm, Aug. 2, 8, 13, 17, 27
Tickets: $44 - $376, subject to change. Standing room is $15
First-time NM residents are eligible for a 40% discount; call the box office in advance: (505)986-5900 or (800)280-4654. Day-of discounts available for students, seniors and military via the box office by phone or in person.