Friday, December 5, 2008


So I saw Carmen, at the LA Opera. I'd never seen Carmen before, but I knew the vague outlines of the story. I was pretty clear on Carmen having non-traditional views on relationships and sex. I wasn't quite clear on what exactly her views are, but I knew they got her into trouble.

This was the first time I've actually been to an opera, and I have zero musical ability, so I'm not quite sure how valid my critique is. For a professional's take on it (with which I mostly agree), check out Mark Swed in the LA Times. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was up in the balcony, the area for which they sell those operas glass (binoculars were on sale for $5 in the lobby; I should have splurged). So I can't tell you just how beautiful Carmen was.

What I can tell you is that I found the performance of the singer who played her, Viktoria Vizin, unexpected, but in a good way. Swed describes her as not particularly flirtatious, but also as very centered. I have always thot of Carmen as neurotic, perhaps bordering on the psychotic, at the very least a woman with some serious edge. Uncontrollable passions bursting through, that sort of thing. Vizin instead plays her as a smart, focused woman, who knows exactly what she wants, and will manipulate the hell out of any man to get it, particularly a pathetic, spineless wimp like Don Jose. Maybe the part is written that way, and I just picked up the wrong bits and pieces from the zeitgeist. Maybe this is the 21st century.

I liked it. It wasn't the sexiest performance I could imagine - far from it - but there were a couple of moments where she simply smoldered. There is something deliciously dangerous about a woman with a voracious sexual appetite who has her own peculiar sense of ethics and is smarter than the men around her. But I like my danger with a bit of chaos.

Some of the men metaphorically around Carmen in this production were the director, Javier Ulacia and most of his crew. This production originated at the Teatro Real de Madrid, created there by Emilio Sagi. An origin appropriate, of course, for an opera that takes place in Spain. But I think we might have been better served by an original LA production. In the first act, costumes for the women were mostly white, with accents of pink and peach, while the men wore khaki, light blue, and muted greens. The entire stage looked like a J Crew catalog, circa spring 1996. Note to M. Domingo: when the color palette suggests a Malibu beach party, rather than old Europe, you might want to have a long conversation with the costume designer. The set pieces in the first act were huge and vaguely Mediterranean, which didn't help focus the action.

Which needed some help with focus. Swed describes the staging as sloppy, and I unfortunately have to agree. The phrase "undifferentiated masses," which sounds like something from a high school chemistry lesson, leaps to mind. The size of the crowds, while lending weight to the collective sound, was visually confusing. "The more the merrier" did not apply. Maybe I've seen one too many perfectly choreographed music videos, but I could have used more precision prancing. Sometimes less really is more.

Less being more would also have been a good guiding principle for the set design. I'm left with a nagging sense of tilted scale and disproportion that did not work to the actors' advantage. Of course, being in the rarefied air of the distant environs I was in didn't help, but for this opera particularly, a sense of intimacy would have been nice.

But these are details. The set and costumes in the second and third acts were much more diverse and interesting. I don't want to quibble too much about the few things I can actually criticize when the music sounded so good. I felt enlightened and moved. Don Jose's passion came through, even though he is a noble twit (the singer was an understudy, and I can't find his name, but he was good). I was joking with a musician friend beforehand that I would probably recognize some of the music and say "Oh, THAT'S Carmen!" I think I could recognize more music from a single Beatles album than the entire classical canon. But now I do, in fact, recognize a couple more pieces. "Oh, THAT'S the song about the toreador!" And now I am looking forward to watching another interpretation of Carmen.

Update: The singer who played Don Jose was Diego Torre. He's from Mexico.

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