The Santa Fe Opera’s first August performance of the new Mariame Clément production of Bizet’s “Carmen”, which opened the 2022 season a month prior, introduced a cast change as Don Jose. Joining a cast that included Isabel Leonard as Carmen, Sylvia d’Eramo as Micaela and Michael Sumuel as Escamillo, New Jersey tenor Michael Fabiano took his place in a vocally impressive foursome.
Isabel Leonard’s Carmen
In her second “Carmen” production since her pandemic-delayed role debut, New York mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, dressed in contemporary fashion, projected a sophisticated, self-assured woman.
[Below: Carmen (Isabel Leonard, center) attracts the attention of a brigade of soldiers; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
That self-assurance translated into an effective vocal performance, especially Leonard’s singing of Carmen’s major arias – the Habanera, the Seguidilla and the chanson bohemienne at Lillas Pastia’s tavern.
This was my first opporunity to review a Leonard performance since the 2015 Santa Fe Opera season [World Premiere Review: All-Star Cast and Crew, Ardent Audience Ovation for Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2015].
[Below: Carmen (Isabel Leonard) has a beer at Lillas Pastias’ tavern; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Always an engaging artist [See Review: Fine Cast Revives Strehler’s Treasured “Nozze di Figaro” Production – Opera National de Paris, May 31, 2011 and Review: Lucas Meachem, Javier Camarena and Isabel Leonard Romp in Sagi’s Sprightly New “Barber of Seville” – San Francisco Opera, November 13, 2013], her success in the role of Carmen is a major accomplishment in an important career [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Isabel Leonard].
Michael Fabiano’s Don Jose
The role of Don Jose is emerging as a signature role for Michael Fabiano, who continues to add spinto roles to his performance repertory. He and Leonard were co-principals in the Washington National Opera’s Francesca Zambello production earlier this year and that partnership was effectively renewed in this strong first performance together at the Santa Fe Opera.
[Below: Don Jose (Michael Fabiano, right) confronts Carmen (Isabel Leonard, left) whom he has handuffed to a fence; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Fabiano displayed the vocal power that one expects from a Don Jose in such passages as the final scene leading to Carmen’s death. Equally noteworthy was his beautifully nuanced aria La fleur que tu m’avais jetée, masterfully delivered with superb vocal expressiveness and control. [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Michael Fabiano.]
I have had the fortune to see some of the important tenors of recent decades in memorable “Carmen” performances – Jon Vickers [Historical Performances: An Exciting “Carmen” from Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers – San Francisco Opera, November 27, 1966], Jose Cura, and both Franco Bonisolli and Placido Domingo in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s new 1981 “Carmen” production, in addition to important contemporary artists. Fabiano is obviously poised to join the ranks of major interpreters of the role.
Sylvia d’Eramo’s Micaela
Of the four principal singers, the one at the earliest point in an operatic career is Texas soprano Sylvia d’Eramo, whom I saw in small roles as a 2018 Santa Fe Opera Apprentice. Her performance as Micaela was extraordinary, displaying a powerful, expressive voice.
[Below: Morales (Darren Lakeith Drone, left) encounters Micaela (Sylvia d’Eramo); edited image, based on a Curtis Young photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]
Micaela appears in only the first and third acts (of the four act version), but sings some of Bizet’s most exquisite melodies, iincluding those in her musical conversations and duets with Don Jose (brilliantly performed with Fabiano).
One of the highlights of any “Carmen” performance should be Micaela’s great solo Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante, which d’Eramo sang so convincingly as to leave no doubt that operatic stardom is in her future. (I have commented on the aria’s staging below.)
Michael Sumuel’s Escamillo
Performing the role of the matador Escamillo is Texas baritone Michael Sumuel. In a performance where the Carmen, Don Jose and Micaela were triumphant in their major arias, Sumuel provided a rousing, world class Votre toast je peux vous le rendre (theToreador Song), arguably the most familiar aria in all of French opera.
[Below: Michael Sumuel as Escamillo; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
For the past 11 years I have enjoyed Sumuel’s excellent performances in San Francisco [Review: Strong Cast, Arresting New Production for “Marriage of Figaro” – San Francisco Opera, October 13, 2019], Chicago [Review: Mariusz Kwiecien Excels in Robert Falls’ New “Don Giovanni” Production – Lyric Opera of Chicago, October 29, 2014], Houston [Review: Back Home for “Bohème” – Houston Grand Opera, November 10, 2018] and Santa Fe [Review: A Feisty, Funny “Fledermaus” – Houston Grand Opera, November 2, 2013].
Isla Burdette’s Little Girl
Clément introduces an extra-textual character, the Little Girl, played with extraordinary acting and dancing skill, by Isla Burdette (who was born seven years ago during the Santa Fe Opera world premiere run of Higdon’s “Cold Mountain”, in which her father, bass-baritone Kevin Burdette, was performing. Isabel Leonard had a lead role in that opera.)
The Little Girl is omnipresent in this production, shielding her ears at the first notes of the first act overture and the rousing first chords of Act IV, while dancing to the strains of the overture’s introduction of the Toreador Song’s theme. The Little Girl often acts as a guide, leading characters by the hand where they are supposed to be – such as first Micaela and then Escamillo to the smugglers camp in the abandoned amusement park.
[Below: Don Jose (Michael Fabiano, left) has his palm read by the Little Girl (Isla Burdette, right); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown phtograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Whenever plot and music hint at the main characters’ fates, we can expect the Little Girl to intercede. In the first act, when Don Jose is at first inattentive to Carmen’s presence, the Little Girl rushes over to read his palm. In the smuggler’s camp, first Carmen and then Frasquita and Mercedes show the Little Girl how to read cards.
[Below: Escamillo (Michael Sumuel, left) holds the Little Girl (Isla Burdette; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Who is the Little Girl supposed to be? A very young Carmen? An unrelated Romani girl? A fate harbinger? Apparently, that decision is up to each member of the production’s audience.
Whatever one’s thoughts as to whether introducing the Little Girl enhanced the opera’s story-telling, Burdette obviously charmed the audience. It was a remarkable performance for a seven-year old, who is appearing in ten late-night performances, where she is onstage, acting and dancing, over most of the three hour performance times.
Introducing a child to operatic roles can lead to a major career in the arts in adulthood [as an example, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Anthony Roth Costanzo]. Time will tell whether or not opera is in Isla Burdette’s future, but this summer is an experience that few children will ever have.
David Crawford’s Zuniga, Magdalena Kuzma’s Frasquita, Kathleen Felty’s Mercedes and Other Cast Members
Pennsylvania bass-baritone David Crawford was impressive as Zuniga, the officer who takes a personal interest in Don Jose’s future.
[Below: David Crawford as Zuniga; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
2022 Santa Fe Opera Apprentices performed the remaining roles. New York soprano Magdalena Kusma was a standout as Frasquite, partnered with the engaging Mercedes of Texas mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty.
[Below: Carmen (Isabel Leonard, left) joins her comrades Frasquita (Magdalena Kuzma, center) and Mercedes (Janice Felty, right); edited image based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The smugglers Duncaire and Remendado were respectively Colorado baritone Luke Sutliff and California tenor Anthony Leon.
Florida actor Omen Thomas Sade performed the non-singing role of Lillas Pastias.
Maestro Harry Bicket and Santa Fe Opera Orchestra
British maestro Harry Bicket, Santa Fe Opera’s music director, provided sturdy direction to the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra.
The Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Chorus
The Santa Fe Opera Apprentices, led by Utah Chorus Master Susanne Shestron, comprised the opera’s chorus.
[Below: onlookers (Santa Fe Opera Apprentices) cheer (an unseen) procession; edited image based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Miriame Clément’s Production
This was my second opportunity to review a production by French director Mirame Clément [See Review: Mariame Clément Mounts Wagner’s “Liebesverbot”: Opéra du Rhin, Strasbourg, May 17, 2016.]
Clément, in her Santa Fe Opera debut, created a production based on her suggestion, that, if each of our lives can be characterized by an amusement park, then Carmen’s, whom Clément regards as dark and tragic, could be shown as an abandoned amusement part whose main features are broken roller coasters and carousels.
[Below: the broken carousel seen at the opera’s beginning; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
However absorbing Clement’s amusement park metaphor might be as a thought exercise, the process of translating it into an operatic production of one of the iconic members of the standard opera repertory’s inner circle, has proven to be a formidable task.
The dissonance between what Bizet’s librettists specified and Clément’s conception is most evident in the opera’s second half. The smuggler’s mountain hideaway (specified by Bizet and his librettists) which could only be accessed through a treacherous uphill path that first Micaela, then Escamillo, must navigate, is transformed into the abandoned theme park where the smugglers spread their belongings below a broken roller coaster. There, Micaela (who has been led there by the Little Girl) sings of being alone while a dozen or so smugglers surround her.
One can be open to the Clément’s idea that Carmen leads a very dark, depressing existence. One can disagree that the portrait of a confident woman that Isabel Leonard projects throughout the opera suggests a broken, depressed soul. Similarly, one may be unconvinced that the complex array of faux-theme park structures (often cluttering the stage and being constantly moved about) does anything to illuminate Clément’s proposition.
Another detractor of Clément’s vision is Bizet, whose music conveys specific aural images (e.g., where Bizet musically paints the vicinity of a bullring, it doesn’t fit Clément’s concept of an amusement park).
For those who are considering attending a Santa Fe Opera August “Carmen”, I recommend it for the outstanding performances of the four principals – Leonard, Fabiano, d’Eramo and Sumuel – and the suppoting cast. I do not suggest that the production’s scenic design is a good fit for Bizet’s opera.