I’ve found myself at a number of Carmen productions over the last 18 months (a Jonas Kaufmann-less Saturday matinee at the Met last spring, a Wolf Trap young artist production, and, most recently, a minimal chorus-less outing in Atlantic City which turned on an affair between Carmen and Micaela), and besides putting me over the annual advisable quota for any particular warhorse, it has given me some time to ponder the current state of the Carmen enterprise.  

Along with Don Giovanni, Carmen is an odd bird on the list of the most beloved and frequently performed works, in that it doesn’t offer directors and actors a satisfying default or “safe” interpretation. While few would embrace the most retrograde readings of the opera (Gypsy sex magic drives men mad and sadly must be resolved through stabbing) most workaday productions find themselves muddling through between that sort of easy logic and more advanced revisionism, usually with marketing material about how Carmen is both sexy and empowered in tow.

Where earlier eras struggled with accepting such transgressive behavior in a female character, we find ourselves distressed with the way the opera seems to mix sympathy for Don Jose with such a haunting portrait of his violent, abusive behavior. Almost 150 years after its premiere, the ambiguities in the work continue to function as a mirror for whatever the sexual politics of the day may be.

OK, idle Carmen musings done. To be sure, Give all due credit to WNO, director E. Loren Meeker‘s traditionalist Carmen that opened Washington National Opera’s season Saturday night with a buzzy lineup of singers making their WNO debuts is not going to win any awards for its trenchant commentary on said sexual politics. But even better (what could be better than that?), it offered a chance to experience a very exciting new Carmen portrayal from the marvelous French mezzo, Clémentine Margaine.

Carmen is Margaine’s calling card in North America; she has already performed it in both Dallas and Montreal, and is set to bring it to the Met in the 2016 – 2017 season. The sound is very dark and very French, seductive in the lower register before exploding into a thrilling and surprisingly sizable top. Her Habanera was a triumph for the kind of virtuosic vocal acting that wishes one heard more of in the role.

Margaine clearly understands that success is not measured in some hackneyed opera version of “sexiness,” but real charisma as telegraphed through the voice. Sure, she still had to tap guys’ packages with her rose and stuff, but the audience was far more riveted with the way she made the familiar tune exciting and spontaneous. “En vain pour éviter” was another highlight. Our one close-up on Carmen’s inner life often fails to connect, but not in Margaine’s hands, who made it a searing, pitch-black glimpse of the pessimism to which Carmen has succumbed under Jose’s menacing presence.

Bryan Hymel, the biggest DC debut of the evening, delivered vocal thrills aplenty in Don Jose’s music—enough to cause one to bitterly rue one’s life choices to not buy a plane ticket to San Francisco for his Aeneas a few months ago. His warm, tightly focused sound is deliciously comfortable in this part, while maintaining a consistent urgency of tone throughout. While you would be entirely justified in clicking away now and getting a ticket for one of his remaining dates, I should also note that his one-emotion-at-a-time approach leaves something to be desired.

In Acts 1 and 2, Hymel’s Jose was the happy-go-lucky brigadier right up until the libretto gives explicit instructions otherwise—surprised as the rest of us that he’s actually “comme un homme ivre” and not just mildly perturbed by all these zany gypsy shenanigans getting in the way of his rifle cleaning or whatever. “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” despite that glorious sound, felt curiously inert, with phrases repeatedly allowed to slink off and expire with little of the unhinged emotion one might expect of a love song rationalizing why you’ve just threatened to make your beloved eat Lillas Pastia’s tile floor.

Janai Brugger, her Micaela making for another welcome DC debut, was perhaps overwhelmed at times by Hymel during their duet, but “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” made a strong case for her generous, silvery soprano. If she didn’t make quite as much of the aria as one would have hoped, some prop-heavy stage business and a relentless hustle in the pit probably deserve some of the blame.

Rounding out the marquee roles, Michael Todd Simpson turned in a spirited but vocally unsure Escamillo. Now, I feel like my Escamillo needs are pretty reasonable—vocal confidence, maybe a little panache to distract from trudging through another Toreador song. But the old chestnut seemed to lie uncomfortably in his voice, with a halting, at times shouty lower register and tentative reaching at the top of the range. Hopefully just an off-night as he seemed in better form by Acts 3 and 4. Secondary parts were consistent with Kenneth Kellogg making a particularly strong impression as a haughty, menacing Zuniga.

Unfortunately the impatience during Micaela’s aria was a common theme from the pit throughout the evening, led by another WNO newcomer, conductor Evan Rogister. I think we all like a zippy Carmen if possible, but the overly ambitious tempi here came at the expense of repeated coordination issues in the choruses as well as the small ensembles.

The physical production by Michael Yeargan  is handsome if not terribly striking, sort of a gentle 1930s Fascist Spain via Pottery Barn vibe. The setting for Act 4 offers perhaps the most interest—instead of an empty plaza for the final confrontation, we are taken to the shadowy underside of the bullring bleachers, while the cheering crowd watching the fight is visible in profile. The modern architecture is a jarring contrast from the quasi-timeless romanticism of the previous three acts and nicely underscores the baseness of what is about to go down.

Finally, entr’acte music was duly accompanied by a pair of flamenco dancers who felt a bit too peripheral to add much to the proceedings, but were nonetheless notable for the explosive hotness of dancer and fashion model Timo Nunez.

Photos by Scott Suchman