Denyce Graves, once the reigning Carmen of her generation, has traded her castanets for a seat in the director’s chair at the Glimmerglass Festival this summer. The mezzo-soprano brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the assignment, along with a regrettable amount of received wisdom. The result is a production of Bizet’s masterpiece that often appears vividly staged but lacks a coherent throughline, with stereotypical acting that fails to evoke the roiling passions of this timeless tragedy.

Briana Hunter (Carmen)
© Karli Cadel

Several good ideas emerge, though they are almost all visual ones. Riccardo Hernández’ set design and Oona Botez’ costumes limns time and place – as many contemporary productions of Carmen do – suggesting a repressive society sometime between the mid-20th century and the present day. The dragoons wear modern-looking police uniforms and bulletproof vests, while the smugglers and cigarette girls dress in slightly vintage fashions, perhaps to suggest a class divide between the military and the commoners. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting bathes the unit stage in vibrant reds and soft-grained blues and provides a vibrant background for the final confrontation between Carmen and Don José. For a novice, Graves is surprisingly adept at staging action fluidly and managing large-group tableaux, necessities in the chaos of the first and third acts.

Richard Ollarsaba (Escamillo) and ensemble
© Karli Cadel

Yet the forward-thinking innovations of the production don’t cohere. Refreshingly, the production incorporates a fair amount of the spoken dialogue, though French style and diction are consistently spotty. A first-act prelude finds Don José, dressed in a priest’s robes, standing over a dead male body. The suggestion that José takes up religious vows reappears only once, during the final duet, when he produces a Bible as he sings the lines “Te sauver, toi que j’adore, et me sauver avec toi”. But the idea that José seeks to convert Carmen from her wicked ways is abandoned quickly, and the confrontation ends with José strangling her – an intimate, almost sexual act – rather than stabbing her, as is traditional.

Carmen, Act 4
© Karli Cadel

Some dramaturgical cloudiness could be excused by top-notch musical virtues, but as heard at the second performance of the run, the execution was surprisingly tepid. Joseph Colaneri paced the score with a sense of forward momentum – sometimes too much – but little individual detail. Briana Hunter brought a game energy to the title role, although she luxuriated in all the familiar stylistic clichés: she tossed her hair, planted her hands on her hips or hiked up her skirt whenever she seemed not to know what to do. Vocally, she struggled to pitch notes correctly, and her high-lying mezzo turned hollow in lower passages of music.

Ian Koziara’s dark, hooded tenor is a stylistic mismatch for Don José, and he tended to phrase unidiomatically from the back of the throat. Koziara and Hunter generated little chemistry as combustible lovers; more often than not, they performed their duets to the audience rather than each other. Symone Harcum infused her performance of Micaëla with a steely righteousness, but her widening vibrato and seemingly uncontrollable dynamics were poorly suited to the character’s pretty music. Only Richard Ollarsaba’s dashing but malicious Escamillo presented as a fully formed characterization, although his secure bass-baritone is rather greyly colored.

Ian Koziara (Don José)
© Karli Cadel

Members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program took smaller roles, with varying success – Yazid Gray (Le Dancaïre) and Jordan Costa (Le Remendado) were most memorable for vividly drawn portrayals, and the Smugglers’ quintet (featuring Lisa Marie Rogali’s Mercédès and Helen Zhibing Huang’s Frasquita) was sung with admirable accuracy. The production’s final image – of the deceased Carmen’s body surrounded by candles, not unlike Scarpia – is arresting. But once again, the audience is left to ask how we got from there to here.