Opera Philadelphia ended its season with an exciting Carmen, directed by Paul Curran. True, it’s hard not to be engaged by Carmen – catchy music and sassy, violent melodrama are a potent mix – but Curran’s production, evoking a non-specific Hispanic culture in the late 1950s, in the style of Havana, Miami or Seville, was a particular asset. An immense collage of tawdry billboard poster scraps formed the curtain before and between acts, with CARMEN writ large in blood-red typeface. It was mirrored in Act 1 by layers of billboard posters, a Carmen-like pin-up, half-peeled off. For the rest, there were palm trees, steel gangways, flat-roofed, colourfully shuttered buildings, all accessories to the abundant life which poured onto the streets in mixed array, from altar-boys scurrying about in lace and clerics in their saturnos to Escamillo (all James Dean) rampaging in on his motorbike and Lilas Pastia’s sleazy cabaret. The thrusting, aggressive diagonals of the sets invited comparison with the angularity of the plot and its jagged passions.

Daniela Mack (Carmen) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Daniela Mack (Carmen)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

But passion was not just where you expect to find it. Kirsten MacKinnon was a strong Micaëla. Although looking every inch the sweet white-gloved girl-next-door, she played a towering woman, with full coloratura, and a commanding presence. She was portrayed as a woman of passion in her own right. Surrounded by these women, Don José (Evan LeRoy Johnson) was depicted as an emotionally under-developed man. When Micaëla bestows on him what she calls his mother’s kiss (clearly not), he just doesn’t get her passion and begins to talk about his mother at once (cue, riotous laughter from the audience). So his obsession with Carmen is cleverly portrayed not as an overwhelming passion squeezing out first love, but as first love and first passion roiled together in a man who has no sense of where anything fits in his life. There’s a moment early on, during Carmen’s arrest, where he looks at her body and you can’t help feeling, the way he has been portrayed to that point, that this is the first time he has really noticed a woman. Johnson’s upper range was strong and effortlessly projected. Adrian Timpaus, as his rival, Escamillo, had an easy charisma of voice and persona, owning his audiences on stage and off. What is the emotionally-stunted dragoon compared to the ultimate pleasure-loving scoundrel?

Adrian Timpau (Escamillo) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Adrian Timpau (Escamillo)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

Argentinean Daniela Mack was made for the role of Carmen, as regards looks, acting and warm mezzo voice (although her voice could at times have been even fuller). But nothing was wanting in the way she inhabited her role. Her portrayal was more layered than many I’ve seen; this was not merely the sexual predator, but a woman who uses restraint as well as power. For all the exuberance of her sensuality, she is on guard from the start. Her habanera typified this sense of restrained power, her masterful phrasing, her choice over when the breaths were taken (and not taken) was particularly striking. By Act 3, the complexity of her character was further enhanced by a change of costume and indeed posture. The dress was gone, and in its place, black slacks, red silk shirt and, in due course, a long black leather coat. She acted – if you will – more mannish, dominating her encounters in ways other than through overt sensuality.

In the last act, we find the triumphalist hyper-feminised Carmen, in red flamenco dress, all flounces, staging herself as the matador’s Lady. It’s notable and disturbing that, as Don José begins to do violence to her, he should tear at her dress – there it goes, a flounce here, a sleeve there – half-deconstructed before our eyes. Wasn’t it Virginia Woolf who talked about “frock consciousness”? Carmen, the most frock conscious of operatic heroines, is hereby undone, dying before her death even. The woman, her dress, and her death are all there in the grim finale. An antidote to Wagnerian neurosis, as Nietzsche put it? I’m not so sure.

Daniela Mack (Carmen) © Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia
Daniela Mack (Carmen)
© Steven Pisano for Opera Philadelphia

I’m also not sure whether we really cared that Don José stabs himself in this production but we do care about the incongruous green balloon left over from the pageantry of the fiesta. Curran aimed to create a show that feels like a movie, and he succeeds most certainly, nowhere more so than here, when the stray thing that sticks in your mind at the very end is the incongruity of that balloon beside the red flounces and the murdered woman. The layered billboards, pasted and tattered, with their surreal collage of colours and messages, all over again. The orchestra under Yves Abel was a convincing adjunct to the dramas of the plot, although occasionally even more verve might have served well.

****1