Who doesn’t enjoy the striking spectacle of a handsome toreador singing astride a live horse on stage?
On May 15, The Washington National Opera (WNO) returned to its home at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House for the first time since the start of the pandemic. On stage: a gala production of Georges Bizet’s most famous composition, Carmen.
Combining tuneful arias and tragedy, Carmen is among the most accessible of operas. All the action takes place either in the city square or at a smuggler’s den deep in the forest. Don Jose, a corporal in the guard, falls for Carmen, a gypsy. Consumed by desire, he breaks his military vows, jilts his sweetheart and ignores his dying mother. Such is the power of love.
The opera begins in the town square of Seville. Soldiers and townspeople are about their business. Michaela, a young peasant girl, well-played by Vanessa Vasquez, arrives in search of her sweetheart Don Jose. The soldiers flirt with her, attempting to persuade her to stay. She declines and departs, promising to return at the changing of the guard.
Don Jose, played by internationally known tenor Michael Fabiano in his WNO debut, returns to the square, just missing Michaela. Simultaneously, a group of women exit the cigarette factory, led by the gypsy Carmen. The women flirt with the guards, who ask Carmen when she will bestow her love. The famous aria, “L’amour est un oiseau rebella,” better known as the “Habanera,” is her reply.
“Love is a rebellious bird
That none can tame,
And it is quite in vain that one calls it,
If it suits it to refuse;
Nothing to be done, threat or plea.
The one talks well, the other is silent;
And it’s the other that I prefer,
He said nothing, but he pleases me.”
Here, the voice of Grammy-winner Isabel Leonard, in her first WNO role, simply soars. Flirtatious, drop dead gorgeous, she is the paradigmatic Carmen, commanding attention from her entrance to her dramatic demise.
When Don Jose refuses to pay her attention, Carmen throws a rose at his feet, returning to the factory with her coworkers. Don Jose hides the flower as Michaela returns bearing a letter from his mother. As he begins reading the letter after her departure, a fight among the workers spills out of the factory into the square, instigated by Carmen.
Don Jose is sent by a superior to retrieve Carmen. When she refuses to answer any questions about the altercation, he is ordered to take her to prison. Carmen employs her wiles to convince Jose to aid her escape. For this dereliction of duty, Don Jose is himself arrested and imprisoned.
So begins a drama of jealousy and revenge, as Carmen first loves and then rejects Don Jose in favor of the toreador Escamillo, performed by the baritone Ryan Speedo Green, who casts a commanding physical presence on the stage.
Green’s rendition of Bizet’s aria, “Votre Toast,” better known as the “Toreador Song,” in Act Two is superb. He reprises the song later in Act Four, at one point astride a live steed. In the interim, he woos Carmen away from Don Jose triggering the soldier’s jealous rage that ultimately results in her murder.
The drama moves swiftly, supported by an excellent ensemble of talented singers and dancers. The dynamics and tempo of Bizet’s masterpiece rests in the able hands of Conductor Evan Rogister, who leads his orchestra in a rousing, rollicking performance. Director Francesca Zambello’s spare staging presents no distraction from the action, which is well blocked and fast paced.
The WNO’s Carmen is opera at its classic best, a combination of beautiful music, high drama and spectacle. Don’t miss it.