"Carmen" looked different last night at Wolf Trap. The soldiers were dressed in khaki, not the colorful uniforms of the 19th century, and their officers greeted one another with Fascist salutes. The smugglers used a captured army truck for some of their operations, and the contraband they were smuggling was arms, not miscellaneous consumer goods.
Bizet's popular opera has undergone a lot of creative reconstruction in the last few years. Peter Brook tightened the plot, dropped much of the music and made it essentially a play with a lot of singing. Jean-Luc Godard turned it into a surreal movie of youthful rebellion in modern Paris. And Antonio Gades dazzled the dance world with an intense flamenco version.
None of these "Carmens" has more imaginative energy than the New York City Opera's current production, directed by Frank Corsaro, which moves the old story up a century to the era of the Spanish Civil War. And unlike the others, Corsaro has remained completely faithful (except in scenery and costumes) to Bizet's original concepts. By restaging the action and restoring the original spoken dialogue between arias (rather than the sung recitatives that were composed after Bizet's death), Corsaro has scrubbed the opera clean and made it new.
The plot and characters remain the same. Don Jose' is still a simple, gentle man, trapped and driven to deadly violence by a passion he cannot control and does not understand. And Carmen is still a rebel, an outlaw with no respect for the established rules of society, and she makes this clear right from the beginning.
"Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame," she sings in her first aria. " . . . Love is a gypsy child; it knows nothing about the law. If you don't love me, I love you. And if I love you, watch out for yourself." Nobody can say she doesn't give fair warning. And everybody should have caught the message, since it was projected on surtitles in this performance.
The outlaw motif is strongly reinforced by the visual elements, which emphasize repressive government and widespread insurrection. In the opening scene, the street urchins, who simply march around the stage in most productions, are seen tormenting a forlorn, huddled group of political prisoners. Before Act 2, while the entr'acte music is playing, a group of Loyalists plasters a sign saying "Muera Franco" ("Death to Franco") over a "Viva Franco" poster. This may be an in-joke as well as a thematic element, since the set designer is Franco Colavecchia. But it adds an effective point to the cumulative impact of the production.
The political flavor continues right to the end. In the final scene, while Carmen is being stabbed to death by Jose' outside the Plaza de Toros, a volley of gunfire offstage indicates that the Loyalists have successfully ambushed a group of Fascist officials in the arena.
The cast brought down to Washington seemed, on the whole, worthy of the striking concept embodied in this production, although the first act last night had some of the usual opening night problems. It is a long act, and it seemed to move sometimes at a rather slow pace. This may be due partly to the restoration of some music that Bizet had trimmed from his score, but it seemed largely a case of the performers needing time to get up to speed and to fine-tune their coordination with one another.
An exception to this was Susanne Marsee in the title role. Her Carmen is vivid from its first appearance, and under Corsaro's expert direction, she has all the right moves. During the Habanera, she moves around stage like a tigress, flirting with the soldiers, stealing oranges from a street vendor, and tormenting inoffensive Jose', who only wants to get on with his work. And in the Seguidilla, making artful use of a bench to which she is tied and the shortness of her skirt, she becomes seduction personified. Her exit at the end of the act is the most spectacular of any production I have seen. Instead of simply running off stage after pulling herself loose from Jose', she is carried off by guerrillas in a hijacked truck. The soldiers on guard duty are all shot down, and a new platoon runs out to fire madly at the vanishing truck.
The chorus was less vivid in this act, however, than it might have been. Its coordination improved considerably in Act 2, which was played much more tightly than Act 1, and continued to improve right up to the end.
Comic routines, notably the Act 2 quintet and the card scene at the beginning of Act 3, were well performed and provoked noticeable response from the audience -- partly, no doubt, thanks to the use of surtitles.
Marsee stood out clearly above the other three principal singers. Marianna Christos, in the role of Micaela, had problems controlling her voice in both the first and the third acts, though her style and tone were generally good and her acting was exemplary. Stanley Wexler sang a bold Escamillo, a bit of a dandy in the 1930s style, and inclined to gaze fondly at a poster of himself while singing the chorus of the "Toreador's Song."
John Absalom was capable if not dazzling in the role of Jose'. A few raw notes were amply offset by a level of acting ability significantly above that of most tenors. His "Flower Song" had a few shaky moments, but he more than compensated with a brilliant performance in the last act.
Conductor Christopher Keene set a tight tempo for the final act, compensating somewhat for the slow pace at the beginning. It might have been more effective if he had been able to start off as well as he finished, but this seldom happens on the opening night of a season. The orchestral color and ensemble playing were good, and the balance of orchestra and voices was exemplary.