Monday, April 27, 2015

Carmen at Minnesota Opera: Review Round-Up

Carmen is one of the great, crowd-pleasing operas that opera companies know will sell tickets, and from all reports, the sales for Minnesota Opera's current production are thriving.

Never seen Carmen? Missed it the last time Minnesota Opera performed it in 2004-05? (Or before that in 1996-97, 1990-91, 1987-88, or 1980-81?)

Here's the scoop from one of my favorite opera books: Weep, Shudder, Die: A Guide to Loving Opera by Robert Levine, who sums it up as "the story of a doomed-yet-hot cigarette-factory-worker-slash-smuggler and her crazed soldier-boy lover." If only all opera summaries were as succinct and descriptive! A bit more from Levine:
"When Carmen first appeared more than a century and a quarter ago, it sent shock wavers through decent society everywhere. Women were fighting and smoking onstage, and the heroine was the most brazen and unrepentantly sexual creature audiences had ever seen. ... By today's standards, Carmen seems a free-spirited young woman with a somewhat dubious taste in boyfriends. Jose, however, is obviously a sexually repressed lunatic who had never been out of the clutches of his mother and virginal girlfriend, filled with angers and frustrations just waiting to explode. Ripped from today's high school headlines."
Here's the thing: I love that Minnesota Opera is selling lots of tickets to this opera--I love that it will give them a good basis for doing more engaging, challenging work, such as last season's staggeringly perfect The Magic Flute, as well as new operas such as The Manchurian Candidate.

Christian Zaremba and Andrew Lovato in
Girl of the Golden West. Photo by Michal Daniel.
And keeping it all about theaterlove ... I am SO glad to finally see Christian Zaremba, Minnesota Opera Resident Artist, in a role (Zuniga) that gives him more to do. He's appeared in a number of small parts all season, and has always done a fabulous job. He's not a focus-stealer in any way, he just embodies his characters beautifully and lends gravity and depth to all productions.

Mark my words: This guy is one to watch. He can act, he has a strong physical presence, he is exceedingly comfortable on stage in a variety of roles, and he can really sing. I think he could be one of the great new opera stars, and I will be very excited to brag that I spotted him way back. (He even showed up on the hilariously admiring Barihunks blog and Twitter feed--I assume a tee shirt will be coming his way soon.)

Siena Forest, Kyle Ketelsen, and
Bergen Baker. Photo by Michal Daniel
More love? Kyle Ketelsen, who was last at Minnesota Opera in Anna Bolena, plays Escamillo, and as soon as he steps on the stage (or is driven onstage), the energy level jumps. He's an amazingly riveting performer, with a strong, confident voice and presence, and something that is too often lacking in opera stars--actual sex appeal. I still remember (okay, it was only two seasons ago) his love scenes as Enrico VIII in Anna Bolena. They were astonishingly hot--especially for opera, which is often pretty low on the temperature scale. He's fabulous but is on stage for far too short a time.

As for the rest of the production, the Director's Notes in the program say it all: "A Boogie Nights Carmen." You can read more here.

Set in the 1970s, the primary aspect that reflects this concept is the costuming. The range of costumes spanned from 1940s housedresses and aprons to ill-fitting hip-huggers to Carmen's Missoni-like dress. When the smugglers all gathered in the mountains (quite a lot of them), it looked like the Manson Family has turned to smuggling--vintage Playboys, no less. Also, I love you Minnesota Opera, but that was some of the worst fake smoking I've ever seen.

That said, I'm happy for Minnesota Opera to have a great-selling show. I hope this encourages more people to come see their other work, especially The Magic Flute, a fabulous production that they're bringing back next season.

Here's what reviewers are saying about Carmen:

'Carmen' Review: Minnesota Opera Shifts Story to '70s, and It Soars - Pioneer Press
"Any significant flaws can be attributed to the opera itself, which tests your capacity for compassion with its opportunistic heroine, abusive hero and no real romance to speak of, just libidos run amok."

Minnesota Opera's 'Carmen' is Disappointing - Star Tribune
"It would be nice to report that the company’s new “Carmen,” unveiled at the Ordway Center on Saturday as the season’s final production, moves forward, offering a compelling vision for the next 20 years. It doesn't." 

Carmen - Aisle Say Twin Cities
"MN Opera's 'Carmen' set in post-Franco Spain, is saucy, dazzling, and you'll be singing the "Toreador" song for days."

Carmen - The Minneapolite
"This is a lush, sexy world and every inch of the stage seems to pulse with that sensual energy. Embrace a bit of tragic yearning and don't miss Carmen."