Last fall Atlanta Opera's General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun produced a staging of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci that thrilled audiences with great performances and glitzy visuals in an outdoor Covid-19-aware setting. It was wonderful, but was it a fluke, a creative burst, a never-to-be-repeated unbridled success by this young talent? Judging by last evening’s performance of a new production of Bizet’s beloved opera Carmen, Zvulun seems like he can unleash an unending flow of creativity and originality.

Megan Marino (Carmen)
© Ken Howard

The new production, titled The Threepenny Carmen, turns the familiar opera into a modern-day look at the lives of people who are caught up in the hedonism of a local dive bar that proudly proclaims itself to be a purveyor of sex, drugs and music, and which features the lovely, seductive, cynical chanteuse Carmen, portrayed by Megan Marino.

The famous prelude was played by a remote orchestra heard over loudspeakers, accented by on-stage guitar and tambourine players. The program begins with the entry of sensual Flamenco artist Sonia Olla, with castanets and shoes pounding out the rhythms of Bizet’s music and her black mask helping to set the ominous mood of the story. A narrator, dressed in leather chaps and brown shirt and mask, provides the back story of the bar and its denizens.

On the stage, Carmen appears and begins to cast her spell on policeman Don José, sung by tenor Richard Trey Smagur. After inhaling what appeared to be a drug-laced rose, José begins to spiral out of control, leading to his overwhelming desire for Carmen and the deliberate killing of a colleague. In the midst of the chaos, Don José receives a call from his long-time sweetheart, Micaëla, who conveys a message of love and hope from his Covid-ridden mother. Throughout Micaëla struggles to try to redeem Don José but ultimately fails.

Michael Mayes (Escamillo)
© Ken Howard

Amid the emotional turmoil, dashing toreador Escamillo (sung by baritone Michael Mayes) arrives, decked out in an Elvis-style cowboy outfit, festooned with flashing strips of LED lights. Carmen becomes infatuated with the bullfighter and over-the-top images of Escamillo flash on large screens behind her, as if reading her desires for him. Don José is spurned and dejected, which, sets up the fatal confrontation between him and Carmen.

Marino was perfect for her role as Carmen. She could be emotionally cold, yet sensual at the same time. Her crystalline mezzo was powerful, even while masked. She embodied Carmen. Smagur was equally effective as Don José and his tenor was also able to overcome the inherent difficulties of singing dramatic arias through a face mask, or within a three-sided transparent plastic shelter. The shelters were used for performers to sing mask-less, while appearing to be physically close to another person. Mayes was a swaggering, buffoonish Escamillo, but he delivered his part with conviction. Jasmine Habersham, as Micaëla, was excellent, but her powerful soprano voice occasionally overwhelmed the sound system. Also, Micaëla’s role in this production was odd. Amidst the sybaritic atmosphere of the bar, her heartfelt messages from Don José’s sick mother seemed quaint; in fact, they seemed so out of place that they elicited laughter from the audience. Her words were no match for the pleasures of the flesh.

The Threepenny Carmen
© Ken Howard

The staging was a visual feast. Designed by Julia Noulin-Merat and Joanna Schmink, it featured bold reds, blues, and yellows, said to be inspired by the work of Pedro Almodóvar. Jutting from the stage was a runway that brought the action into the heart of the audience and it had light standards that doubled as dance poles for the company’s dancers. The set was remarkably effective in making a tent-enclosed setting in a parking lot take on the ambiance of a sleazy Spanish-themed bar.

There was an amazing performance, in tough pandemic circumstances. Maestro Jorge Parodi did a masterful job of conducting the off-stage orchestra and the amplified sound was uniformly good. The dancers were outstanding and added immeasurably to the bar’s ribaldry.