Seattle Opera 2018-19 Review: Carmen

Starring Ginger Costa-Jackson, Seattle’s 1950s Carmen Has Style, But Plays It Safe

By John Carroll

It’s been over 20 years since I’ve seen a live production of “Carmen,” so my anticipation was high for opening night of Seattle Opera’s updated production. Does absence makes operatic eyes and ears grow fonder?

The boldly designed act curtain that welcomed us called to mind a giant, colorful yet tattered roadside billboard with the word “Carmen” in bright relief, insinuating that we might be in store for a new, explosive, contemporary approach to this classic. Alas, though there were moments of musical and visual theatricality, the production as a whole didn’t live up to such expectations.

Why Not Take The Risk?

Seattle Opera’s “Carmen” is a co-production with the Irish National Opera and Opera Philadelphia, staged by Paul Curran and designed by Gary McCann, with Paul Hackenmueller as the lighting designer. They chose to set the piece in the 1950s, where women aspire to dress like Sophia Loren and there are soldiers everywhere. These particular soldiers were lazy and inept, just one signal that Seattle’s creative team wasn’t interested in exploring Franco’s brutal authoritarian regime during this era in Spain, or his propaganda machine and laws that severely curtailed women’s rights in society. That strikes me as a potent backdrop for a story about a fiercely rebellious woman and a soldier who becomes a murderous outlaw for her.

That, however, was not this production, which stayed in the safe zone. The time period update effectively swept away some stylistic operatic cobwebs and made for visually engaging stage pictures, which I applaud. But it relied too much on comfortable cultural nostalgia for mere entertainment value. For example, the Bohemian song that opens act two was treated like an outdoor night club performance by a Fifties pop music girl group with Carmen, Frasquita, and Mercédès on a makeshift stage outside Lillas Pastia’s tavern, deftly working vintage microphones and performing synchronized arm and hand moves a la The Supremes. It was clever, and worked well enough if you just didn’t think about it too deeply (Wait, so Carmen and her crew have a side gig as a singing group?).

Another example, however, that didn’t work at all was Escamillo, who makes a rambunctious entrance on a motorcycle, styled ludicrously like Fonzie from the TV show “Happy Days.” He then proceeds to sing his Toreador aria to the gathering of fans on the small stage using the same mics and coming alarmingly close to a gimmicky Elvis impression.

I’m all for humor and wit whenever it’s earned. In this case, Escamiillo may be arrogant, but he’s not a fool. This silliness did his character a disservice and seriously threw off the balance of the opera’s love triangle: why would Carmen be at all interested in this clown?

Especially the Carmen of mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson.

“Voila la Carmencita!” Indeed

At times sly, at times brazen, at times somehow both simultaneously, Costa-Jackson’s Carmen uses sex to slash and burn her way through the world — and she certainly does not put up with fools. In act one, Costa-Jackson sauntered around the stage looking magnificent in a red satin cocktail dress (which she just happened to be wearing under her factory apron) and caressing or grinding up against whoever was nearby, including her two gal pals Frasquita and Mercedes. It was an electric characterization that came on too strong from the get-go, but layered in nuance as the story unfolded and avoided cliché because you could sense a deep rage simmering underneath it all.

Vocally, my first impression was that Costa-Jackson was deliberately leaning into her chest voice to sell a bigger, beefier sound — which as is often the case had the opposite effect of sounding hollow and manufactured. However, everything adjusted into a warm, natural balance by the middle of act two; the turning point for me being the bewitching solo dance for Don José.

She reached a vocal apex in act three’s beautifully poised and fatalistic card scene. Of all the singers, she was the only who used the French language to accentuate her musical and character choices; everyone else’s French was generic.

A Remarkable Last-Minute Replacement

If the chemistry seemed a little off between her and Don José, it was perfectly understandable because tenor Frederick Ballentine had stepped into the role of the doomed soldier at close to the last minute.

Seattle Opera General Director Aidan Lang made a perky curtain announcement that the originally scheduled and rehearsed tenor Scott Quinn had been ill for a couple days, so Ballentine would be singing the role. Seattle Opera double casts most of its lead roles to be able to schedule back-to-back weekend performances, but presumably it would not have been viable for tenor Adam Smith from the other cast to cover for Quinn since Smith would be singing Don José at the Sunday matinee a mere 14 hours later.  That’s a lot to ask.

The decision to bring in Ballentine paid off. He was remarkable, even more so considering he’d had very little rehearsal and had likely just gotten off a plane a couple days before from who knows where.  It surely helped that he had just sung Don José in another production last month according to Lang, so the music was still fairly fresh in his voice and mind.

His instrument has an open, baritone quality, with an appealing, even sound across the entire range. He hit his character’s emotional marks in each act squarely, but the transitions from homesick solider to passionate lover to jealous smuggler to desperate murderer were thin. I suspect with more rehearsal time he would have been able to convey more of the character’s arc. Nevertheless, what impressive feat for this singer!

Witnesses to Murder

It’s to Rodion Pogossov’s credit that his Escamillo managed to retain some credibility in spite of the goofy costume and staging he was saddled with. Vocally, he struggled with the lower lines of his aria to the point of being inaudible, but he had vocal charisma in his natural baritone range and enough charm and swagger to put it over.

The opening night audience developed quite a crush on Vanessa Goikoetxea’s Micaëla, giving her a robust ovation after her aria. Her full lyric soprano carried well, though the top B was strained. I found the stage business about kissing during her duet with Don José to be cloyingly phony, though I’d blame the director more than her as she was a more convincing actor in her other scenes.

It was intriguing that Micaëla appeared surreptitiously at the very end of the opera, just in time to witness Don José strangle and stab Carmen. She understandably flees in horror, after which he uses his knife to kill himself. It wasn’t clear to me if he saw her off in the sidelines, and whether the realization of how far he had fallen was the impetus that pushed him to kill himself. How impactful that ending would have been, had it been more deftly staged.

The supporting cast was strong. Ryan Bede was a refreshingly capable Moralès, not just vocally, but as one of the only officers on stage that was competent at his job. Daniel Sumegi was a well-seasoned, slightly raspy Zuniga. John Marzano and Mark Diamond as Remendado and Dancäire were mischievous and sang a tight, witty quintet.

Two performers who got it just right were Madison Leonard and Sarah Coit. As Frasquita and Mercédès they were a perfect pair, musically well-blended yet able to shine in their solo moments. They sang well, moved fluently, looked terrific, and had just the right world-weary yet upbeat attitude.

Speedy Tempos, Nice Balance

After an overture that so fast as to be almost comical, conductor Giacomo Sagripanti settled down, conveying the scale of the score from the atmospheric interludes to the grand sweeping moments, and yes, still keeping the tempos bright and swift as modern audiences (and singers) prefer. It was a treat to hear Bizet’s masterful score played live by this well-balanced orchestra after two decades of just recordings.

The production design was evocative. The specific locales chosen were intriguing, often in the midst of large elevated billboard structures, which were the primary scenic element in three of the four acts. The use of forced perspective created visual interest and a slightly warped sense of place, most tellingly with the smugglers’ vast warehouse in the third act. What contraband they were actually smuggling was a mystery and even with the overly dark lighting scheme, there was never any sense of real danger. It was another aspect of the production that was disappointingly played safe, in this case literally.


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