Seattle Opera’s new production of Bizet’s Carmen opened Saturday night, and it’s set not in the 19th century but around 1950 in a poor area of town, cigarette factory one side, army barracks the other – however, not so poor it doesn’t have a bullring. The factory girls in this production wear what any 1950s factory girl might wear, faded cotton dresses with aprons and hair tied up out of the way. Townspeople are equally drab, the soldiers’ khaki uniforms the only brighter spot, at least until Carmen appears. All through this production, what she wears stands out colorfully from all others.

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Carmen) and Rodion Pogossov (Escamillo © Sunny Martini
Ginger Costa-Jackson (Carmen) and Rodion Pogossov (Escamillo
© Sunny Martini

The general drabness is offset by action which is lively from the opera’s start to finish. Ginger Costa-Jackson's Carmen rivets the attention whenever she is on stage. She looks the part and acts it like a second skin – a come-hither, sultry, sensuous siren. Every movement she makes: hips, shoulders, even the way she regards people from under her eyelids, signal who she is and that she’s beautiful.

And Costa-Jackson can sing, superbly. Everyone in this cast can sing, from the smallest role to the biggest. The Don José Friday night was a stand-in, brought in last minute to replace an ill Scott Quinn. Tenor Frederick Ballentine deserves all kinds of kudos for his performance. He has sung the role previously and has a beautiful, expressive voice, but this new production is extremely active, and José’s role runs the gamut from quiet bystander to smoldering, passionate lover and self-doubter, to jealous, violent, out-of-control killer. Ballentine, who might have had one run through of the staging earlier, nailed the role both vocally and as an actor. Soprano Vanessa Golkoetxea as Micaëla, José’s hometown girlfriend, also epitomized her role as the guileless girl next door in every movement and with fine expressive singing.

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Carmen) © Sunny Martini
Ginger Costa-Jackson (Carmen)
© Sunny Martini

The tavern scene is set in a cavernous barn of a place, and it’s here that José shows he is no pushover, as Zuniga (bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi) tries to woo Carmen. There’s a brief sword fight – by no means the only fight in this production – but Ballentine demonstrated clearly José’s dilemma immediately after: cling on to Carmen and join the smugglers she hangs with or obey the bugle summons to barracks. Escamillo the toreador (baritone Rodion Pogossov) drops in to everyone’s awe, and he too is smitten by Carmen, who it seems is also smitten by him.

The smugglers’ lair, traditionally somewhere deep in a forest or cave, here seems to be in an abandoned factory, another drab set. Again, perhaps the drabness sets off the spirited action; the card game with Carmen’s friends, soprano Madison Leonard as Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit as Mercédès, in which the two garnered many laughs for their delight and belief in the cards’ prophecies. Ballentine's José, now a smuggler, is clearly an uncomfortable fish out of water. Eventually, after another fight, José is expelled along with Micaela who has braved the lair to find him and in a long aria describes her fright and effort to have courage.

Finally, the denouement is also somewhat different in this production. We see the picadors (one of them female) strutting their stuff in the plaza, then Escamillo in all his glory arriving. With him is Carmen in a flaming red flamenco style dress, body hugging, extravagantly ruffled. There aren’t many with the figure to carry this off, but on Costa-Jackson it was a jaw-dropper.

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Carmen) © Sunny Martini
Ginger Costa-Jackson (Carmen)
© Sunny Martini

But when everyone vanishes into the bullring, the light fades and a scruffy-looking José emerges to grab Carmen before she can leave. Ballentine portrayed superbly the last-ditch efforts of the spurned lover to draw her back, getting gradually more violent, tearing her dress, finally out of control and knifing her, then himself, in the lonely dusk of the abandoned plaza.

The effective lighting of the sets, by Paul Hackenmueller, was well nuanced, such as the shadowy tavern corners with spotlights just on the action itself and the important characters. Sets worked, given the premise of the production but surely there could have been some flowers in the unadorned plaza and was it necessary for the factory to be set behind bars like a prison?

Given the many fights or tussles, Seattle Opera’s long-time fight director, Geoffrey Alm, had plenty to do, realistic, particularly with clashing swords or knives, enough to wonder why no one accidentally got within reach of one of those, blunted as they might be.

Stage director Paul Curran’s coherent concept succeeded seamlessly. Bringing Carmen into a different era lost none of the opera’s impact. Lastly, none of this would have been as successful without the music so ably played by Seattle Symphony members under Giacomo Sagripanti.

*****