Carmen is the quintessential sex bomb of the opera repertory. Her seductive arias set to pulsating Spanish rhythms written by a Frenchman attract every diva whether or not she has the right vocal skills, or body, for the role. The allure of seducing both a handsome country boy on military duty and the dashing celebrity toreador is too juicy to resist.
San Diego Opera has just the right combination for the star. Marina Domashenko is a drop-dead gorgeous Siberian with a cool mezzo-soprano voice and the body language to win her men. This tale of a gypsy girl smuggler who lives a reckless life until killed by her lover outside the Seville bullring opens March 25 for five performances at the Civic Theatre.
Composer Georges Bizet fashioned his last opera “Carmen” on a French “bodice-ripper” novella for the Opera Comique, a popular Parisian family theater. Its premiere in 1875 met a hostile audience shocked by seeing the heroine stabbed to death by a jealous Don Jose right before their eyes. No matter that the most familiar music in opera, the March of the Toreadors, surged out of the bullring hailing the toreador Escamillo. It is a dramatic climax, but the Opera Comique audience liked their opera to be light and romantic.
Another problem in the premiere run of 48 performances was the chorus of gypsies and quarrelsome girls working in the cigarette factory with Carmen. They had to move around and flirt with the soldiers. Choristers in those days were accustomed to only stand and sing. They even smoked on stage, something ladies did not do in public in 19th century society.
Despite this scandalous behavior at the family theater, the opera survived, but Bizet at 37 years of age suddenly died on the eve of the 33rd performance. An opera interpretive book of 1888 offered a poor opinion of Bizet’s valedictory. It said. “The moral tone of the piece is low because Carmen’s virtue was scattered to the winds before the opera opens.”
After the composer’s death, the opera was revised to replace the spoken dialogue, the usual style of opera comique, with sung recitative. That’s where the story line between arias is chanted to orchestral accompaniment. This is the form heard today in the opera houses around the world and in the current San Diego staging sung in French with English translations over the stage.
Joining Marina Domashenko in the current new production shared with Opera de Montreal are tenor Cesar Hernandez as Don Jose and baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as Escamillo with Karen Keltner leading the San Diego Symphony orchestra. Maestra Keltner, the SDO resident conductor, is fluent in French and favors that repertory. Her association with the company began in 1982 under the Young Opera Conductors project. She is one of the rare women conducting in the pit of opera houses across the United States and in Europe.
In the late 19th century, “Carmen” moved from the “light” musical drama to the grand opera stage as verismo, or realism, as a new look for opera that took over from the traditional costume dramas about gods and royals. Showman Oscar Hammerstein II transformed the Bizet masterpiece again in 1943 into a Broadway musical called “Carmen Jones.” The setting was the Deep South instead of Spain with an all-black cast. The music stayed the same with English lyrics and spoken dialogue transformed into hip lingo. The show’s popularity produced a film in 1954 starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey but using the dubbed singing voice of opera great Marilyn Horne, a 20-year-old who later put her own stamp on Carmen on the opera stage.
Bizet’s “Carmen” runs for five performances: 7:00 p.m. Saturday Mar. 25 and Tuesday, Mar. 28; 8:00 p.m. Friday, Mar. 31; 2:00 p.m. Sunday Apr. 2; and 7 p.m. Wednesday Apr. 5 in the Civic Theatre at the intersection of 3rd Avenue and B Street in downtown. Info: (619) 533-7000 or www.sdopera.com
John Patrick Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and maintains the opera archive at the San Diego Historical Society.