Bristling with sensuality and controversially showcasing the messy lives of the urban proletariat, George Bizet’s Carmen was, apparently, Queen Victoria’s favourite opera, although it is frankly anything but Victorian in sensibility. Tonight’s performance was a cracking good opening for the Washington National Opera’s 60th anniversary season.

Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) © Scott Suchman
Clémentine Margaine (Carmen)
© Scott Suchman
From her entrance, Clémentine Margaine’s Carmen dominated the action of the stage. It is a visceral role and her voice duly came from a low place. “Cut me, burn me”, she challenges. Most compelling was her liberal use of rubato: the orchestra fitted around her just as it ought to. She is the rhythm, hers the lawless drive of the whole work: she dictates it from that gorgeous habanera till her final scene. Margaine conveyed malice as well as sensuality throughout, perhaps too much so for some tastes, although I rather approved. There were barred teeth, and a certain wolvishness of expression and tone; her vocalise was a classically defiant contempt of form.

Janai Brugger was a quite glorious Micaëla: white-gloved, of course, and with sensible shoes, but a voice not at all that of the girl-next-door. Her diatonic melodies contrast with Carmen’s chromaticism. Fittingly, Micaëla chastely transmits José’s mother’s kiss, but Carmen stands only for herself in her relationship with the world. The female binary pulsed through the production wonderfully well. WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Ariana Wehr and Aleksandra Romana, had lovely showy voices as Frasquita and Mercédès respectively; the latter’s high notes were sensationally good, audible over a whole chorus. Joined by Christian Bowers and Rexford Tester and Margaine herself, their Act III quintet was a dazzling example of ensemble control at reckless speed. Bryan Hymel made Don José’s transition from respectable soldier to scruffy outsider to lawless killer with some conviction. His high B flat to end the Flower Song was movingly quiet, evoking that ‘loss of tenor force’ of which Parker speaks, as he submits to Carmen’s sway. By the end, he gets his (vocal and actual) force back by exerting violence on her. Michael Todd Simpson’s voice as Escamillo sounded somewhat hollowed out, although he looked the part of the toreador splendidly.

Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) and Michael Todd Simpson (Escamillo) © Scott Suchman
Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) and Michael Todd Simpson (Escamillo)
© Scott Suchman

Carmen is nothing if not a great choral opera, and the choruses both male and female acquitted themselves with some verve. From the ragamuffin children, strident and high-pitched, to the cigarette girls (on estrogen overload in their Act I chorus) and free-wheeling gypsies, this was, on the whole, bar some issues, good singing not afraid to be properly raucous, the screams, cheers and hisses signs of the violence never far beneath the surface.

The deft directorship of E. Loren Meeker (a WNO debut) and choreographer Sara Erde put the physicality of the opera – the performance within the performance – front and center. Dancers Fanny Ara and Timo Nuñez danced Gypsy-style flamenco at the start of each act (apart from Act III). This brilliant addition added depth to the experience of a very familiar opera. Not only did it render Carmen’s culture with a certain authenticity (otherwise we have merely stereotypes), but we saw in the form of dance the duende – the possession to which a dancer submits, the paroxysm of soul and body, which were replicated in song and in theme. François St-Aubin’s 1940s-style costumes worked a treat, to my mind, and even if one isn’t a glutton for flowing florals, it was surely a sly way of expanding upon the omnipresent floral motif.

Bryan Hymel (Don José) and Janai Brugger (Micaëla) © Scott Suchman
Bryan Hymel (Don José) and Janai Brugger (Micaëla)
© Scott Suchman

The orchestra under the baton of Evan Rogister preformed creditably from the bright primary colours of the overture (dubbed by Parker and Abbate ‘one of the best musical daybreaks ever’) to the constant bite of its forceful rhythms. Meeker and Rogister had trimmed dialogue to a minimum: the whole maintained its pace.

Carmen is that strange breed: the Opéra Comique that changed the genre from within. The grindingly inevitable tragedy is frankly easier to convey. Well-achieved tonight was the element of light relief. Knowing the end as we do it was a nice sleight-of-hand to make the audience believe that things just might have turned out differently. In keeping fate at bay, the production stayed true to the work’s Opéra Comique origins. I thought the last scene especially well staged and an example of what I’m referring to: underneath the stands of the bull-ring, sedate parasols, occasionally twirling, and panamas were visible in profile, cheers for the victorious toreador punctuating the appalling denouement. But it shouldn’t just jar us to see people having fun, right then, we should even feel that pull towards the fiesta. And this all the while as Carmen, red petals (from her hair? her body?), spilling each time Don José pushed her to the ground, fell, deflowered finally and dead, blood red colouring the whole stage. “Quelle vérité” as was said after the première “mais quelle scandale”.