Review: Costa-Jackson, Diegel, Matanovic and Simpson Excel in Glimmerglass Festival’s “Carmen”, August 13, 2011

Bizet’s “Carmen”, the most often performed of all French operas, is one whose inherent drama presages success in a variety of settings. A strong cast of actor-singers, conducted by Festival Music Director David Angus, and intelligent stage direction by Anne Bogart assured that audiences at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival’s 914 seat Alice Busch Hall would witness a well-sung and highly dramatic performance.

[Below: Don Jose (Adam Diegel, right) seeks assurance from Carmen (Ginger Costa-Jackson) if she will love him if he violates his orders and lets her escape; edited image, based on a Julieta Cervantes image, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

Notes on the Vocal Performances

Of the four principals, I had only seen Michael Todd Simpson, the Escamillo, in operatic performance previously (see my review of his excellent Guglilemo at Bel Canto “Cosi fan Tutte” at Dallas Opera – February 18, 2010.) Yet all four artists are early in what are likely to be important careers.

The Carmen, Ginger Costa-Jackson, a Sicilian mezzo still in her mid-20s, was a marvel as an actress and had the sultry lower register (and pleasing appearance) that makes a fine Carmen.

The buzz about Adam Diegel, a lyric tenor with spinto power whose roots are in Seoul, Korea and Memphis, Tennessee, proved to be fully justified. Already discovered by the Metropolitan Opera, he seems destined to be one of the nation’s fine tenors in the major roles of the French and Italian repertories. (That he is singing Froh in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” at the Met, suggests that the jugendlicher heldentenor roles are well in his sites.)

[Below: Micaela (Anya Matanovic, seated left) is questioned by Morales (Wes Mason, standing left); edited image, based on a Julieta Cervantes photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

Also impressive was Anja Matanovic’s Micaela. Matanovich, an alumna of the Seattle Opera Young Artists program, who has appeared in important roles in the past and has another scheduled for the future at Seattle Opera, possesses an appealing, dramatically expressive lyric voice, and, like lyric tenor Diegel, seems destined for opera’s spinto roles.

The role of Escamillo requires a lyric bass-baritone voice with a wide range (that the Toreador Song may be ultra-familiar doesn’t mean that it is easy to sing), who ideally should have a commanding stage presence (able to believably distract the Carmen from her interest in what should be an obviously attractive Don Jose), preferably with a figure sufficiently lithe to fit into a matador’s suit of lights.  Simpson made the grade when judged by all these, admittedly, in part operatically irreverent, but dramatically practical, criteria.

[Below: Escamillo (Michael Todd Simpson, standing on table), explains the dangers he faces in the bullring; edited image, based on a Julieta Cervantes photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

Notes on the Staging

Anne Bogart’s direction was yet another example of how a familiar opera can yield to seemingly infinite details of staging by innovative stage directors. Some dramatic devices were used by others (the children and townspeople in Act IV rushing to the footlights, appearing to watch the procession of bullfighters with great excitation, was a signature feature of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who surely was himself influenced by Berthold Brecht.

Similarly, the device of having characters arriving onstage one by one before and during the overture is used by David McVicar and others).

But Bogart’s direction abounded with ideas new to me. When Don Jose arrives at Lillas Pastias tavern, he has an engagement ring for Carmen, which he presents her after Zuniga, Don Jose’s commanding office, is dispatched unceremoniously from the tavern.

(That answers the question of when Carmen receives the Ring she throws at Don Jose just before her death. Now, we can ask the question, what happens to the jewels in the jewel-box that Marguerite received in the Garden Scene in Gounod’s “Faust”.)

Bogart delves a bit further into the psychology of Don Jose and his relationship with Carmen (and by inference to Micaela and his mother) than audiences may be accustomed to. In all productions, Don Jose and Carmen have obviously grown further apart in the Mountain Passes inhabited by the ban of smugglers of which the soldier and gypsy are part.

But Bogart demonstrates that it is not just that Don Jose is possessive and jealous, he is violent as well. As much as Carmen understands that she and Don Jose are bound by fate, she will not submit to abusive behavior on Don Jose’s part. That he knocks her down in Bogart’s Mountain Scene explains why their separation is inevitable.

That their successive deaths (shown by the cards to be immutably fixed) occurred as the cards predicted, is, of course, the hand we are dealt by Bizet and his librettists. But arguably it was Carmen’s belief in the immutability of fate that led her into behaviors that no one would describe as risk averse.

[Below: Don Jose (Adam Diegel) stands over Carmen (Ginger Costa-Jackson), warning her that he will be back to impose his will on their relationship; edited image, based on a Julieta Cervantes photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

In such an explanation of the opera’s final scenes, her affair with Escamillo is an affecting moment of respite from what she knows will happen. When her colleagues invite her to save herself, she cannot permit herself to struggle against Don Jose’s strength. But she can permit herself the indulgence of adding to Don Jose’s abundant rage by throwing his ring (that she obviously worn through the duration of her relationship with Escamillo) to him, as the act that brings forth the final death blows from him that she knew she could never escape.

Notes on the Sets

Often, a major concern of 21st century opera production is to seek to develop a way of producing an opera with the least complicated scene changes as possible. “Carmen” has proven a challenge, with a first set that includes a regimental headquarters, near a tobacco factory,  where soldiers congregate and exchange guard duties; a second scene in Lillas Pastias’ tavern; a third scene in a mountain pass; and a final scene outside a bullring.

James Schuette’s Glimmerglass sets utilized a unit set that rather surreally enclosed the meeting place for the soldiers, and had a common door, which one would suspects has no real world equivalent,  between the regimental headquarters and the tobacco factory. Nor was it a restricted area. Even if soldiers organized themselves in formation here, the neighborhood kids would march about and play, and Micaela would find easy access to Don Jose’s world.

For the second act, characters would move chairs and mid-stage curtains would fall to provide opportunities for silhouettes of dancers, and hints at illicit sexual liaisons. In front of the curtain, a long table provided Escamillo opportunities to charm the ladies present, including the center of attention, Carmen.

For the third act, the two walls at right and left stage are stationery, but the back wall has disappeared  (into a space high above the stage) and the resulting space represents the mountain passes where Carmen and the smugglers hide, sufficiently remote to elude the authorities, but not so inaccessible as to prevent both a maiden, Micaela, from a rural community, and the bullfighter Escamillo from finding it.

In the fourth act, the enclosed original sets are intact, although it is now an area near the bullring, where dancers romp and the Escamillo expresses his love to Carmen.

[Below: Escamillo (Michael Todd Simpson) expresses his love of Carmen (Ginger Costa-Jackson); edited image, based on a Julieta Cervantes image, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

As in the first act, the set has sets of doors along the side and back, each of which is closed by the now very sinister presence of the emotionally distraught, and very dangerous, Don Jose.

Final Thoughts

The Glimmerglass “Carmen” meets the singing standards of a major opera house’s production of the popular opera, makes effective use of modest sets, and employs an innovative, dramatically effective stage director.

I recommend it.