As last Friday's opening-night audience arose in unison to applaud Denyce Graves' sensual, passionate performance in the title role of Carmen, the name "O.J." inevitably arose from the murmuring of the crowd. Whether or not Simpson murdered his estranged wife has, of course, yet to be decided by a jury. And Nicole Simpson was hardly the dusky, manipulative free spirit who lured her lover into her arms only to discard him for a more famous man. But George Bizet's venerable opera, in which the soldier Don Jose slashes his former lover to death out of jealousy and shame at his exposed weakness, touches close to contemporary life.
Homicide detectives will tell you that most murderers are otherwise decent folk who, in one blind moment, become overwhelmed by emotion and kill someone they know and even profess to love. In life, such stories often seem more pathetic than tragic, and death is rarely the judgment of the court. But art demands that we merge our blunders into a story about fate with a capital "F." Every man can identify with Don Jose's shame and anger, and possibly every woman can identify with that Carmen in herself who has flattered and seduced. And in art, it's foreshadowed that Don Jose will be executed for killing Carmen, tying his fate to hers.
In changing Carmen from its traditional 19th-century setting to the early 1950s, English director Keith Warner has sharpened the interpretation of the opera, not merely updated it. When Micaela -- the innocent, blond-braided hometown girl Don Jose should have married if he had listened to his mother -- has to run a gauntlet of contemporaneously dressed soldiers who fondle and caress her, the Tailhook scandal resonates through the scene, and it takes on a real menace. It makes you wish Carmen had gone after one of these macho jerks instead of Don Jose, who keeps guiltily thinking about his old mother back in the village.
The Houston Grand Opera set is minimal. The floor is steeply raked and the space divided by a high, curved wall pierced by a single door. That wall is emblematic, Warner writes in his program notes, of Carmen's mind: her world is divided between those whom she chooses to bring into her story and those who are bystanders, who watch and comment. It is a world of light and dark, one in which Don Jose's execution by firing squad is literally foreshadowed on the wall in silhouette. It is a world of primary colors as well: the red rose that Carmen hurls at Don Jose, a red path of destiny, a blue sky beyond.
With such a stark setting, the focus rests all the more strongly on the performers, especially Carmen. No problem. These days, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves practically owns the character. Since first portraying Carmen in this version with the Minnesota Opera in 1990, Graves, a graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, has performed the role in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Florence, London and San Francisco. Already, she's expressed concern about being typed for it. The concern may have some validity; somewhere in her late 20s, Graves can be expected to excel in the role for years to come.
It's a part for which she's ideally suited. A tall, voluptuously figured woman with huge, almond shaped eyes, Graves dominates both the stage and Don Jose with believable ease. From the moment she erupts through the central door, barefoot and wearing a clinging yellow dress, she embodies Carmen's arrogance and allure. Her singing is rich and gorgeous, but it's her acting that dominates. When she warns in her famous song, "If I love you, beware," she is all allure and danger. And she is worth the risk.
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Such a powerful Carmen demands a complex Don Jose. Tenor Neil Rosenshein responds wonderfully well as the troubled, inept soldier. He shambles about the stage, lumpish, undistinguished, hapless. But his longing and anguish are convincingly revealed in his singing. He's a man who knows better, but what he knows better is so bland, so pious and so sentimental that his transformation into a thief and vagabond is convincing.
As the self-important bullfighter Escamillo, baritone Richard Paul Fink cuts a marvelous figure as an almost ridiculous celebrity who's certain Carmen will have him once she gets over her pathetic soldier. Cutting pose after pose, Fink, playing a character untroubled by reflection or doubt, makes a persuasive counterpoint to Don Jose. He takes his role right to the edge of comic parody, and even his occasional difficulty at fully engaging the lowest registers of the music seems appropriate for a man we recognize as ultimately hollow and trivial.
In a time when a great deal of grand opera seems like museum pieces whose emotional vitality has been drained by repetition, this Carmen is renewed and revitalized. Houston Grand Opera's David Gockley continues to show that he's a master producer. He shops for the best productions and casts, even when they aren't his own. But I bet a secret regret nags him: that it was the Minnesota Opera and not HGO that first put Denyce Graves into the role that has established her as an international star.
Carmen plays through November 18 at the Wortham Center's Brown Theater, 227-2787.