Sex, Drugs and Videotape

SFO's Carmen Lite

If there’s one thing that the Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Bizet’s Carmen proved last Friday night, it’s the power of positive projection. And I don’t mean that à la Freud.

The SFO is no stranger to newfangledness—witness the then-innovative seatback titles installed in 1998. This summer the shock of the new entails a sophisticated apparatus for projecting film and video images onstage to augment the company's hitherto conventional scenic package. A major rebuild of the lighting booth had to be accomplished, plus developing complex film and videotape chops.

There's no doubt that the SFO's new system works smoothly, effectively, stylishly in the current Carmen. Maybe it works almost too well. I came away impressed by the screened images but dismayed by Stephen Lawless' splashy stage direction. While the production may be hyper-energetic, amply provided with eye-candy and often fun to watch, it's about as shallow as the Rio Grande between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez on a hot summer day.

Which by the way is not an entirely inappropriate metaphor, since Lawless shifted the action from exotic, gypsified España to a gritty border town that could be Juárez around 60 years back. We're not smuggling whatevers across the border as in the Prosper Mérimée novella-source nor weapons to Franco's enemies as in some modern productions. The smugglers, now enterprising if melodic coyotes, are sneaking human flesh and cocaine past a comically venal US Border Patrol.

I'll get back to those projections in a bit, but since opera is supposed to be mostly about the music, let's go there first. This 2014 Carmen boasts a remarkable number of company debuts, beginning with the title role, sung by Daniela Mack. She has an easy way with an appoggiatura, a mezzo that's smooth and cultivated throughout the range, intonation that rarely goes awry and a comfortable stage presence. What's missing? A smoldering lower register and, more seriously, an animal vitality that separates a real Carmen from mere girls. At her best in the Card Trio's death song, she's a not-so-bad, family-friendly gal, scarcely the pelvis-thrusting she-devil some of us might recall from days of misspent youth among the more louche Juárez establishments.

Roberto De Biasio makes another company debut as her hapless Don José. The voice is big, sturdy and pleasantly nasal; his French diction is just fine; he's easy on the eyes. He remains a stolid figure throughout, though, and even in his would-be passionate interactions with Carmen you feel a sense of isolation, of disengagement. Mérimée's violent José is thrice a murderer. De Biasio, however melodramatic his gestures, never gets seriously love-crazy.

As Escamillo, debutant Kostas Smoriginas has a few moments of charisma largely sabotaged by his anti-heroic entrance—passed out on the back of a mechanical bull, I kid you not. What the crowd at Lillas Pastia's, not to mention Carmen, sees in this drunken lout is past imagining. The Lithuanian bass-baritone uses his handsome voice skillfully, but we miss the heft and weight the role demands.

The fourth company newcomer in a major role, Joyce El-Khoury, makes the strongest impression as Micaëla, José's pure-hearted old flame. Too often a make-weight nonentity, this Micaëla compels our sympathy with her unaffected, floating soprano. El-Khoury possesses the rare gift of art that conceals art, making music seem to flow generously from the heart. And she has an understated messa di voce to die for.

Among the many lesser roles, Evan Hughes stands out as a confident, big-voiced Zuniga. As for ensembles, the crisp second-act quintet and the Card Trio speed cheerfully along. Rory Macdonald, in yet another company debut, leads the band in a rambunctious, energetic reading that occasionally overpowers the singers.

But listen up for some terrific instrumental work, especially from the horns and flutist Bart Feller. Susanne Sheston supervises the boisterous choral-crop of apprentices in her customary deft manner, including the charming first-act chorus of boys who are obliged, ugh, to pop out of dumpsters in one of Lawless' nastier touches.

Which returns us to the visuals. As mentioned earlier, the projections, designed by Jon Driscoll, succeed in nearly every sense. Images of the corrida enhance the overture; a touching black-and-white sequence, filmed nearby, illustrates the burial of José's mother; fast-moving clouds scud over the Sangres.Particularly effective: the wraith-like processional of bull-fighters in the last act.

Still, we're left with the Lawless touch: caricature rather than characterization, a shallow grave for the passionate intensity of the original. Most egregiously, a tall wire border fence far downstage in Act Three cuts off effective communication between fenced-in singers (them Mexicans) and audience (us Americans). It's a muddle not a metaphor. The drab bi-level set by Benoit Dugardyn serves best as screen for the projections. Lighting by Pat Collins and thrift-shop border costuming by Jorge Jara are equally serviceable.

Well, then. To borrow Mérimée's use of an enigmatic Romany proverb, one that he, rather inexplicably, chose to conclude his novella: "A closed mouth, no fly can enter."

Hmm. Good advice for a critic?


Santa Fe Opera House, $39-$295

8:30 pm July 2, 5, 11, 18;

8:00 pm July 28, August 2, 6, 11, 16, 20 & 23

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