A preview of Bizet’s opera masterpiece ‘Carmen’

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By Alan Schuster

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that four of the most popular and finest operas ever composed will be featured on consecutive Wednesday afternoons in July as part of the Met’s “Encore” HD presentations at the USCB’s Center for the Arts.  The series begins July 10 with George Bizet’s “Carmen” at 12:55 p.m., followed by Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” and on July 31, another Giuseppe gem, “La Traviata.”

The Met’s version of “Carmen” will be at USCB.
The Met’s version of “Carmen” will be at USCB.

Never been to an opera before, but thought about going? If so, there’s not a better time than now to see and hear one — and it’s “Carmen.” Milton Cross, the distinguished voice of the Met Opera’s Saturday broadcasts for 43 years, considered it “one of the universal favorites of the operatic stage … filled with vivid musical characterizations, brilliant orchestrations and continuously flowing melody.” Richard Eyre, the opera’s director, calls it “one of the inalienably great works of art. It’s sexy in every sense. And I think it should be shocking.”

Actually, it was too shocking back in 1875 when it debuted at Paris’s Opera Comique. Both audiences and critics were appalled by the wild and immoral character of Carmen and let it be known with jeers when it ended with her violent death. Four months later, it was acclaimed a masterpiece in Vienna and soon throughout Europe and beyond — even back in France. Sadly, Bizet was completely unaware of its enormous success, dying exactly three months after its premiere in Paris. He was 36, the same age when Mozart died.

The cast: Carmen, a Spanish gypsy; Don Jose, a civil guardsman; Escamillo, a bull fighter (toreador); Micaela, a young friend of Don Jose; Zuniga, captain of the civil guard; and gypsies, soldiers, smugglers, dancers, et al.

A brief synopsis: A group of gypsy smugglers are frustrated by Don Jose in their attempts to bring contraband into Seville. Carmen tries to help them by seducing Don Jose and later persuading him to look the other way when they approach. When this infatuation with Carmen leads him to kill a fellow guardsman when he tries to arrest her, he becomes a fugitive. The capricious Carmen soon resents his possessiveness and leaves him for a famous toreador. Obsessed with her, a distraught Don Jose follows her to the bullring and kills her.

Musical highlights:

Act I: Two very famous Carmen arias. First, the “Habanera,” a sexy tango song with a powerful punch from the gypsy chorus. Later, the equally-provocative “Seguidille” in which she lures Don Jose into the ill-fated plot.

Act II: Four stunning set pieces make up this act. The opening scene is Carmen’s sultry description of a gypsy dance, building into a whirling finish. Minutes later, the bull fighter Escamillo enters and charms the crowd with a self-centered toast to his dangerous life. [Does “tore-e-ah-dor” sound familiar?]. An inspired quintet is next, featuring two smugglers matching wits with three gypsy women. It’s a fast, catchy tune, bringing to mind some of Rossini’s famous ensembles. The act concludes with a Carmen/Don Jose duet, in which she dances for him, teasingly at first and then ridiculing him for not yielding to her wishes. [Does the sound of castanets sound familiar?]. Don Jose’s finely-crafted aria [the Flower Song] is his finest vocal moment, although his urgent pleas of “I-love-you Carmen” are gratuitously dismissed.

Act III: The second scene is considered to be Bizet’s greatest tour de force. As crowds cheer to the rousing music of the Bullfight Parade, Don Jose becomes desperately jealous of Carmen’s flirtations with Escamillo. In the street outside the ring, he pleads in vain one last time, and as cheers for Escamillo are heard in the background, his fury at Carmen drives him to plunge his dagger into her heart. And to the dark sounds of the Toreador theme, the curtain falls.

For the past 135+ years, the role of Carmen very likely has the shortest list of great voices who have achieved world acclaim for executing the many challenges of this role. An opera critic recently referred to this role as multi-tasking. Not only must she have a strong and finely-tuned mezzo voice, but also impressive acting and dancing skills — and, of course — passable finesse with castanets. Rise Stevens, who died recently at the age of 99, was such a performer. Denyce Graves is another great Carmen who comes to mind. And now it looks like the beautiful and sensuous Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca is soon to join the short list of the greats. She has it all, and more, meeting director Eyres expectations of “being sexy in every sense.” She’ll be joined by the world-class tenor Roberto Alagna as Don Jose; Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Escamillo; and Kate Royal as Micaela. It’s an exceptional music and dramatic treat — and with no intermissions! Rating: Definitely PG.

All tickets are $15; no reserved seating. Box office opens at the USCB Center for the Arts one hour before the 12:55 curtain. For more information, call 521-4145.