Bieito-bashing has become a popular pastime in the operaverse, creating a strong confirmation bias. Calixto Bieito's productions are often automatically dismissed – frequently sight unseen – as Eurotrash, assumed to be replete with gratuitous nudity and a Tarantino-like reveling in sex and violence. Haters gonna hate, as they say, but they might want to take a close look at his production of Carmen which opened Boston Lyric Opera’s 40th season and, along with an earlier run in San Francisco, marks his American debut.

Jennifer Johnson Cano (Carmen) © T Charles Erickson
Jennifer Johnson Cano (Carmen)
© T Charles Erickson

Freed from the usual Disney World of folkloric clichés, with most of the spoken dialogue cut, Bieito sets the action in a remote military outpost in colonial North Africa in the immediate post-Franco era. His Carmen is primal, feral, raw and lightly leavened with comic relief. A stifling, oppressive machismo threatens violence and persists from the outset as Moralès cracks a drafting whip, herding his squad, while a soldier stripped to white briefs and combat boots runs punishment laps, porting arms, until he collapses. Left unsupervised, the troops reconnoiter the cigarette girls in waves, sniffing and feinting like a pack of wild dogs in heat. They treat Micaëla similarly, Moralès making lewd and suggestive use of his whip. The smugglers kick, stomp, and slam Zuniga with the door of a Mercedes, leaving him for dead center stage as the curtain falls on Act II. A huge silhouette of a bull, familiar as the logo for Osborne sherry, dominates Act III, suggesting that the real bullfight in the opera is the one between Escamillo and José. During the entr’acte, a soldier strips naked and, in the bluish half light, performs the torero’s night-before-the-fight ritual of the “moon baptism” seeking to absorb the animal’s energy. Even Don José is volatile and violently obsessive, proving more than capable of holding his own in Act III’s knife fight. The only miscalculation in this respect came when marauding soldiers hoist a cigarette girl, stripped to black underclothes, up the flagpole by her wrists. The intent was clear, but the execution so hectic and clumsy that the stage picture intended to ring down the Act I curtain had no time to register. Credit to fight director Andrew Kenneth Moss, though, for making all the violence graphic and believable – Act I’s cigarette girl riot in particular, a tumultuous hair-pulling, bitch-slapping brawl which roiled across the stage.

Chelsea Basler (Micaëla) and Roger Honeywell (Don José) © T Charles Erickson
Chelsea Basler (Micaëla) and Roger Honeywell (Don José)
© T Charles Erickson

Carmen may seem confident in this man’s world, but she is vulnerable as well as dangerous, yet sufficiently aware of her appetites to control and exploit them, manipulating the randy men around her and surviving on her own terms. Her final encounter with José is a nuanced dance of death rather than a snarling, clawing fracas. She doesn’t hurl José’s ring, but presses it with a hint of regret and resignation into his free hand as he holds a knife to her throat. Jennifer Johnson Cano, voluptuous and Titian-tressed, moves confidently and seductively, matching her chiaroscuro mezzo to the action. She avoids the pitfall of many Carmens by allowing the music to speak for itself, only coloring the words and refraining from over-interpreting. Act IV was a lesson in how to blend singing and acting to achieve a layered  portrayal.

Michael Mayes (Escamillo) © T Charles Erickson
Michael Mayes (Escamillo)
© T Charles Erickson

Roger Honeywell was, unfortunately, not himself. His tenor was uncharacteristically dry, tight and short. Whenever the voice managed to briefly ring free, it gave a hint of what he can do with José when he’s at his best. Micaëla is often nothing more than a chirping plot device. In this production she’s a bold woman who doesn’t hesitate to flip off Carmen. Chelsea Basler made the most of the unique opportunities Bieito provides and shone singing the best aria Gounod never wrote, “Je dis que rein ne m’épouvante”. Michael Mayes, a tall, lantern-jawed baritone, was stretched thin by some of the lowest lying notes in “Vôtre toast”. Otherwise, his Escamillo dominated whenever he was onstage. The rest of the characters were as strongly and colorfully cast as the three principals. David Angus managed the tricky acoustics of the Opera House (built in 1928 for vaudeville) and attentively supported his singers. He and the orchestra luxuriated in the Prélude and entr’actes.

Bieito’s is a very physical, high energy production, The demands it puts on the chorus, augmented by a squad of brawny shirtless extras, are prodigious. They surround and mount a phone booth, brawl, cavort, swarm a Mercedes and rock it mercilessly, wave, gesticulate, bust moves, and jump up and down like soccer fans, all while singing seemingly effortlessly. Breathtaking... literally.

If you think you know Carmen, think you know Calixto Bieito for that matter, then you definitely should head to the Opera House and have your eyes opened on both counts.

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