Think you’ve seen enough Carmens? Rest assured one more will be worth dressing up for. This time, Carmen will be far more complex than a seductress.
Portland Opera’s latest production, which opens Friday for a five-performance run, provides another chance to see one of opera’s enduring love stories – perhaps the most enduring. Carmen is the most performed opera of all time. The Metropolitan Opera has staged it more than 1,000 times, and it’s onstage there this week with the stunning Latvian lyric mezzo Elina Garanca as Carmen.
Despite the opera’s ubiquity, the countless ads cheesed up by its instantly recognizable music, and dreadful muzak versions of “Habenera” and “The Toreador Song,” we keep coming back for more.
Considered scandalous, Carmen and its catchy tuneful melodies were booed when the opera debuted in 1875. Shortly after that and composer Georges Bizet’s untimely death, the story about the irresistible free-spirited gypsy who attracts, with the lift of an eyebrow, a jealous conventional soldier and dashing bullfighter, began to draw ever-larger audiences. It still does: Portland Opera performed it only seven years ago, and it often sells out, or comes close.
This time, buzzed-about director Eric Einhorn, who led a similar traditionally set Carmen at Pittsburgh Opera in 2010 before this PO debut performance, is drilling down psychologically deeper than most Carmen productions push themselves to go. Praised by Opera News for his “keen eye for detail and character insight,” Einhorn argues that the opera’s story, or inner narrative, “has so much truth to its core.” By “peeling back layers to the characters’ real natures,” he digs into complex, yet “utterly relatable relationships,” he said between tech rehearsals at the Keller.
The opera’s characters, like the rest of us, fall in love with the wrong person, give everything up, make bad choices, do obsessive-compulsive things, sacrifice too much, do it anyway, break up and break up again – and in Carmen’s case – pay dearly. When Carmen is attracted to soldier Don Jose (tenor Chad Shelton), Einhorn believes that she truly falls in love for the first time – and Don Jose does the same. “There’s part of you that never shakes those feelings,” he said.
Though the show is staged in traditional 19th-century Seville setting (including more than 250 costumes in this production) with a full chorus, “it will be riveting,” Einhorn promised, partly because “Sandy has fully fleshed out Carmen’s vulnerability. She’s not just the constant vamp.”
Sandy is Sandra Piques Eddy, who has steadily gained a reputation for her Carmen portrayals. A former chorus school teacher, she has sung the main role in seven Carmen productions and at least 40 performances. “The best way to go to Carmen school,” she said, “is to sing Mercedes (a secondary Carmen character) at the Met.”
The Boston native later became a Carmen understudy at the Met. Preceded by beloved Carmens, including mid-20th century’s Marilyn Horne, Tatiana Troyanos and Maria Callas, Eddy studied and reshaped the character. Yes, she’s still a lawless survivor, a free spirit, a seductive hell-raiser – but above all, she has a breakable heart. Casting a youthful Carmen with a mature mezzo can be a challenge, but her burnished voice — described as “burgundy-rich” by a Chicago Tribune critic — and youthful physical presence add another dimension of believability.
Aside from the vigorous singing, the four-act show is physically demanding with castanets, dancing, fighting and heavy flirting between Carmen and the 6-foot-5-inch Escamillo, sung by baritone Eric Greene. Performing his fifth Carmen (including a concert in Seville), Greene argues that the love between his matador character and Carmen is full of danger and passion. “The audience can lose itself for a moment, fantasize, and experience extreme emotions – even if most of us don’t live that way,” he says. “The heart wants what it wants.”
And what would good opera be without that kind of over-the-edge escalation, especially when we can count on the star running us all over the human-emotion map?
A New York City Opera production with costumes owned by Opera Omaha, Carmen is sung in French with English subtitles. Look also for former resident artist Jennifer Forni as Micaela and PO’s music director George Manahan as conductor.