One of my favorite things about opera in concert is the absence of director’s concept. Don’t take me wrong: I do enjoy a well-directed opera production with a concept. But let’s face it: how often does an opera artist get an opportunity to express his/her own vision of the character? Hardly ever, unless, liberated by the absence of director’s demands, the artist gives the role a bold treatment, and through it, inspires the audience to see a familiar opera at a different angle.

Heather Johnson © Peter Konerko
Heather Johnson
© Peter Konerko

On Friday night the Engineers Club, located in the heart of historical Baltimore, hosted a performance of Bizet’s Carmen, offered by the artists of Baltimore Concert Opera. Even though, due to the concert format of this event, there were no sets or costumes, and the stage of the ballroom (our opera house for the evening) was really tiny, this performance shed light on the things that I had never noticed about Bizet’s opera before and gave it a completely new meaning.

With many stage directors tending to see the title heroine as a consistently unfaithful girlfriend whose love “doesn’t last over six months”, it is Don José who, due to his moral downfall, becomes the central figure in most productions. However, this was not the case with Baltimore Concert Opera, whose performance, contrary to the established tradition, focused on the development of the opera’s title character, Carmen.

No sooner than the Act I chorus of the cigarette girls (beautifully performed by the BCO choir) ended, when a dark silhouette appeared in the ballroom doorway. Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson did not wear a costume, but a red flower in her hair, her long ruffled outfit and no shoes on her feet made her look the part. Her hypnotizing and slightly ironical Habanera indulged us in a dark mellow tone, and her Seguidilla was filled with folklore musicality as Johnson performed a flamenco-inspired dance around her Don José (and husband of only two months) tenor Benjamin Warschawski.

In contrast to Warschawski’s thoughtful and slightly shy Don José (whose powerful sound and lustrous tone were particularly impressive in his song on the way to his tavern date with Carmen), Johnson’s heroine seemed strong and even invincible until the very end of Act III, when, infatuated with toreador Escamillo, she forced Don José to leave. However, quite unexpectedly, this Carmen looked neither triumphant nor relieved to see her ex-lover go. Her confident posture and even her obnoxious manners were gone, leaving us with a feeling of the emptiness that suddenly consumed her.

In Act IV we saw yet another Carmen. Now, richly dressed and clinging to the arm of the man of her dreams, Johnson’s heroine looked lost and vulnerable. Even though her lips pronounced the words of love in her duet with Escamillo (confidently portrayed by baritone Timothy Mix) “Si tu m’aimes, Carmen”, her passionless voice resembled that of a hypnotized person, unaware of what she was saying. Physically she was there, but her heart was clearly not in it.

As the opera drew close to its finale, this change reached its peak in Carmen’s death scene. Johnson’s dark voice filled with helpless anger and sadness in her final duet with Warschawski “C’est toi! C’est moi!” said it all. This Carmen realized that Don José was not just her ex-lover, but a reflection of herself: a woman capable of real love, a woman that she had been so scared to turn into. Just like in Act I, this flirty and once bewitching gypsy trusted a flower to ignite passion in Don José’s heart, now, confused and terrified, she made the last effort and tossed his ring back at him, trusting it to break the unseen bond connecting her to Don José, and above all, the bond connecting the woman that she once used to be to the woman he had turned her into. Even in death, Johnson’s Carmen did not look like a victim of jealousy. She was only a human being, who failed to run away from her new self.

Every time I would see a production of Carmen in the past, I tended to take this opera as a warning to all the good guys out there: beware of who you fall for. Wrong girl – ruined life! However, it was thanks to Johnson’s bold and untraditional treatment of her heroine that I was able to discover a much broader and deeper meaning of Bizet’s opera that teaches us not to be scared to accept ourselves as we are.