By CB Adams

“Carmen” is no stranger to controversy. As far back as its premiere in 1875, audiences and reviewers were put off by the opera’s depiction of the lifestyles of commoners and bohemians, and their supposed immorality and lawlessness – not to mention the onstage death of Carmen herself. Flash forward to Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s 47th season opener, “Carmen,” at the Browning Theatre in the Loretto-Hilton Center, and there may be a bit of operatic controversy afoot as well.

That’s because Director Rodula Gaitanou has updated the setting and Carmen herself to appeal to more modern sensibilities. Gaitanou has moved the mid-19th century Spanish setting to the 1950s and, correspondingly, uniformed the original army into Franco’s Guardia Civil. 

But it is Carmen herself, initially seen dragging a bloody bull’s head across the stage, who is distinctly reimagined in OTSL’s production. Carmen is often presented as a stereotypical, exotic, Spanish seductress – as hot as the “Habanera” she sings early in the opera. Not so in this production. Gaitanou provides a headstrong, independent Carmen – one that doesn’t need to prove her ability to turn a man’s heart and head with a flashy red dress, a provocative sashay or even stiletto heels. The audience is challenged to accept Carmen’s ability to inspire the men around her, as well as to witness her fatal attraction to the ideals captured in her final duet with Don José: “But whether I live or die / No! No! No! I will not give in.”

That idealistic inflexibility leads, even in this interpretation, to her inevitable demise.

Yunuet Laguna. Photo by Eric Woolsey

Gaitanou’s Carmen, as sung by Sarah Mesko, is more formidable, though no less unforgettable. She even rides through some scenes on a motorcycle, like a sort of Daughter of Anarchy. In other scenes, she sports a matador jacket, a visual metaphor for a woman who – ultimately fatally – runs and fights with men rather than the bulls.

To spend more time explaining Gaitanou’s artistic choices for the presentation of Carmen is to risk providing a lopsided review of the rest of this fine production. To Gaitanou’s credit, this production elevates and balances the role of Carmen with her love interests, Don José, sung by Adam Smith, and Escamillo, sung by Christian Pursell. Both are strong, masculine and believable – and Mesko’s Carmen is up to the challenges posed by these two males.

The standout performance among this strong cast is provided by Yunuet Laguna as Micaëla. Clad throughout as a dowdy, frumpy (and even pregnant by Don José) village maiden, Laguna’s “Je dis que rien m’epouvante” shines forth as a potent, if plaintive, Jiminy Cricket counterpoint to Carmen’s shinier persona. That a supporting role can rise to such showstopping prominence proves this production’s overall high quality and integrity.

Under the baton of Daniela Candillari, Opera Theatre’s new principal conductor, the Saint Louis Symphony impressively projects as if it were a larger ensemble of musicians and more than does justice to Bizet’s score.

Also noteworthy is the subtle-yet-profound sets and costumes by Cordelia Chisholm and lighting by Christopher Akerlind. “Carmen” is often associated with a fiery red and other brash, bullfighty colors. In contrast, this production evokes a Spain dusted in a drab desert palette, which is perfect for the most important splash of red at Carmen’s culminating death scene.

Opera Theatre’s “Carmen” continues at 7:30 p.m. on Jun 8, 12, 16, and 25 and at 12:30 p.m. on Jun 4 and 22. For more information on the 2022 Festival Season or for tickets, visit: https://opera-stl.org/

The ensemble of “Carmen.” Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Andrew Jorgensen, general director of Opera Theatre, announced the cancellation of the 2020 festival season that was to open May 23 and run through June 28 with this repertory: the world premiere of Tobias Picker and Aryeh Lev Stollman’s Awakenings, Bizet’s gripping opera Carmen, Strauss’ effervescent comedy Die Fledermaus, and the long-awaited company premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah

Here is his April 7 announcement:

I hope that you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. Normally at the beginning of spring in St. Louis, we are bustling with activity to prepare for Opera Theatre’s festival season — building sets, sewing costumes, and preparing to start rehearsals. Unfortunately, that is not the case today. Like you, we have been following the news of COVID-19 and taking appropriate precautions. It is now with great regret that we are forced to cancel Opera Theatre’s 2020 Festival Season.

Until recently, I held out hope that we might adapt our festival season and still produce opera in June. However, it has become clear that it is no longer possible to present our festival. More importantly, it would not be safe to convene hundreds of artists, staff, and audience members night after night — we must all do our part to flatten the curve. 

This is difficult news to share. This crisis has had a devastating impact on so many, including the artists and artisans who rely upon companies like ours for their livelihoods. Thanks to the unwavering support of our Board of Directors, we have made the commitment to honor 50% of the expected income for each of the 380 seasonal members of our company — including singers, artisans, production crew and staff, front of house staff, administrative interns, and our partner, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra — and will retain 100% of our year-round staff.

We are heartbroken that we won’t be able to share a season with you this year, but now we are asking for your help. Though we know this is a difficult time for organizations and individuals alike, by choosing to convert your 2020 season ticket purchase into a tax-deductible donation, you will ensure OTSL continues to support our artists and artisans now and in the future. You may also choose to convert your purchase into a credit for the 2021 Festival Season or request a partial or full refund. Credit or refund requests must be made by June 30, 2020; any remaining tickets that are undesignated on July 1 will be automatically converted into a tax-deductible donation.
 
If you choose to donate your ticket, every dollar of your donation will be matched up to $500,000, thanks to a special challenge effort led by members of the Board of Directors. I am making a personal commitment to this campaign with a 50% voluntary pay cut through the end of Opera Theatre’s fiscal year. I hope you will join us — your generosity will have twice the impact and will make a real difference for our artistic family. 

In accordance with national guidelines, our Box Office is working remotely through at least the end of April. To expedite your ticket request, please consider filling out the online form below to record your choice between a donation, credit, or refund. You may also contact the Box Office at [email protected] or (314) 961-0644 and leave a message — our staff will return your message as soon as they are able. Thank you in advance for your patience and understanding as it may take us longer than usual to process ticket requests. 

DONATE, CREDIT, OR REFUND YOUR 2020 SEASON TICKETS

Our community will emerge from this crisis, and when we do so, shared artistic experiences will be more powerful than ever. Today, I promise you that we will return to creating art as soon as it is safe to do so. We are already hard at work on our 2021 Festival Season, which will be announced by early fall. Thanks to forty-five years of your generosity and guidance, Opera Theatre is a resilient organization. We have never believed more strongly in our mission, and we look forward to the day when we can once again bring people together through the power and beauty of live opera. 

Thank you for your understanding. Your support and passion make all of our work possible. Until we meet again, I wish you good health and spirits