NT's First Opera Review (My, Aren't We Cultured?)
Rob Levy
6/2/2004 4:10:35 AM

Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened its 29th season with a progressive, vibrant and daring re-imagination of opera’s crown jewel, Carmen. This compelling tale of passion and jealousy set in 19th century Spain has endured because it combines themes of love, lust, death and destiny with a musical score that occupies its own place in the world of popular culture. Carmen remains as valid today as it was in 1878, when Georges Bizet first premiered it.

Carmen is traditionally a big, bold and colorful production. Everything about it is grand and large in scale. That is why it is interesting to note that Opera Theatre St. Louis ignored this, and instead mounted the much more intimate Opera Comique version, which combines elements of traditional opera with spoken dialogue.

The result is a simply amazing opera that is engaging, enticing and invigorating to see.

Early in Act One the audience learns that whatever Carmen wants, Carmen gets. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Dudley stars as Carmen, a beguiling gypsy who smolders and steamrolls her way into the hearts of men, leaving a trail of destruction and tears in her wake. This brassy ingénue brings a fresh intricacy to the troubled, evasive, determined gypsy. Her stage presence, nuanced body language and powerful voice make Carmen come alive. Her Carmen is a captivating enigma, full of depth and mystery and Dudley owns this character.

From the outset, we learn that Carmen does what needs to be done, always looking after her own self-interest. She’s a survivor who knows how to get the most out of life. Whether working in a tobacco factory or trekking through the mountains, Carmen boldly lives her life with vivacity and audacity. Her passion drives her actions, defining her as a person. Her capriciousness and sexy charm is too much for a humble soldier named Don Jose; he is so bowled over by her wiles that he frees her, eventually sacrificing his own freedom for hers. Right from the beginning, it is apparent that the poor guy doesn’t even stand a chance.

John Bellemer is terrific as Don Jose. He is only a corporal, but that’s good enough for this gypsy girl. He turns everything in his world asunder for the saucy gypsy, only to be destroyed by betrayal and obsession. Don Jose is indeed a lost soul and Bellemer brings his inner turmoil and complexity to the surface. Throughout the production, this tenor’s voice is in perfect syncopation with Dudley’s, potently propelling the tension onstage.

Lauren Skuce is brilliant as Micaela, the women who pines for Don Jose and is shattered when he spurns her. Skuce’s performance makes the audience feel her angst. She little raises the roof with her amazing voice. Her solos resonate to the highest part of the theater, mesmerizing the audience and providing

In Spain, bullfighters are rock stars. Bizet knew this and created, Escamillo, a flamboyant and dynamic foil for Don Jose. His arrival in Act Two throws a wrench in Carmen and Don Jose’s happiness and breathes new life into the story. His fame, fearlessness and reputation are bad news for Don Jose. Although his flirtations are initially rebuffed, it is obvious that in time, he and Carmen will wind up together. From the minute he charges the stage, Kyle Ketelsen makes his Escamillo his own. It is an immense pleasure to hear him sing his solo in Act Two. As an actor, he molds the toreador into something larger. His towering voice and cocky swagger bring a breath of life to Escamillo, who is arguably the most important character in Carmen. His arrival not only brings Carmen’s lust to a full boil, but also kick-starts the possessive obsession within Don Jose that leads to his moral demise.

As Act Three unfolds Carmen decides to give herself a Tarot Card reading. As the cards turn over she realizes she will meet a tragic end. Undaunted, she faces death the only way she knows how to, with passion and desire. Meanwhile the once timid Don Jose grows more and more possessive and overbearing. His constant suspicion eventually pushes Carmen into the arms of the suave Escamillo. An anguished Don Jose loses control of his faculties, resulting in one of the most disturbing and erotically-charged finales in opera.

Dudley and Bellemer perform this scene flawlessly, never losing sight of the emotional magnitude of the event. As the last scene unfolds they reach a furious crescendo of obsession and emotion that finishes the production with an exclamation point of tragedy. The intensity of this final scene is one of the most difficult in all of opera and they nail it perfectly, leaving the audience exhausted, exhilarated and spellbound.

Carmen is in the unique position of reminding us how good Bizet’s masterpiece remains while also serving as a great introduction to opera in general. Director Tim Ocel’s stunning production accomplishes both. By utilizing the sparsest of sets, Ocel emphasizes the cast’s terrific singing and substantial acting. Conductor Dean Williamson (making his Opera St. Louis debut) provides a terrific re-imagination of the score.

Opera Theatre St. Louis has once again proven that there is more to opera than stodgy people and funky glasses. They continue to make the medium, fresh, hip and young, while retaining the basics that keep the traditionalists in order. Their production of Bizet’s timeless classic. Like Carmen herself, is hot stuff recommended for neophytes, opera lovers and theater fans of all ages.

Opera St. Louis’s production of Carmen runs through June 19th at Webster University’s Loretto Hilton Theater. For showtimes and information call (314) 961-0644 or visit the OTSL website, http://www.experienceopera.org


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