Flair for the Familiar

Carmen is one of those rare, familiar operas that ranks as high among die-hard opera buffs as it does among those who couldn't care a whit about the art form. The story is set in the cinematically rich, mountain environs of Moorish-flavored Seville, in Spain's desert south. Its plot is simple. Boy meets girl and falls in love. Girl convinces boy to risk everything for her. He does it, and she dumps him for another guy. So boy stabs girl in the heart.

After staging Carmen nine times before, Houston Grand Opera's opening-night performance of French composer Georges Bizet's masterpiece offered a refreshing change to the traditional man-eating Spanish heroine who struts her stuff to the rhythm of castanets.

HGO's newest Carmen plays down the Spanish stereotype in favor of classy Gallic panache.

Its vision and sets are stylistically subtle, more cosmopolitan, and at times, distinctly French. Co-produced with Opera Pacific and Michigan Opera Theatre, the show is ably guided by acclaimed French conductor Alain Lombard, the HGO orchestra and French mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon.

As the story opens, soldiers guard the cigarette factory in Seville. Enter Micaela, the innocent country girl who is intended for Don José, a soldier and the tale's protagonist. Soon we meet Micaela's opposite in Carmen, a saucy girl who works in the factory and croons about the vagaries of love. She flirts with Don José, but he later resolves to marry the country girl.

His plans are permanently foiled when Carmen is caught in a brawl and accused of trying to slash another woman's face. The police arrest her, and when she's placed in Don José's custody, she convinces him to allow her to escape. After a series of events, he takes multiple risks to win her over but gets little in return. He takes up with her gypsy cohorts, and her attraction to him wanes. The match is doomed when Carmen sets her sights on a celebrated toreador.

As a heady, manipulative femme fatale, Carmen's character has no equal in opera repertory. Here, Uria-Monzon gives the role enough complexity to make us forget all the stereotypes. This Carmen is something more than a tramp. The singer's sultry mezzo-soprano is deep and balanced, conveying in moments the sense that she's as much the victim of misfortune as Don José, whose love she carelessly flouts. From the beginning, when she sings the classic "Habanera" ("L'amour est un oiseau rebelle"), until the moment Don José knifes her in the heart, Uria-Monzon's understatement of the heroine's vices make her seem more human and sympathetic. Her mildly florid vocal style also adds realism to the part.

Through the libretto's spoken lines, Uria-Monzon also gives the image of one with supreme confidence in her power to use both wiles and appearance to bewitch the opposite sex. Barely a brunette, Uria-Monzon is no tall, busty bombshell like Denyce Graves (who played the role for HGO in 1994). She's small-chested and slight, but still seething with sex appeal.

When she first emerges during the famous "Habanera," she eyes Don José with hair pulled casually behind her ears, and still manages to seethe with passion and guile. She walks among the cigarette girls, clad in a 1940's-style full nylon slip and pale aqua housecoat, with nothing flattering her slender feet but low-heeled slides.

Uria-Monzon's calm machinations draw out a frustrated Don José, a character deftly sung by Argentinean tenor Luis Lima. The fact that Lima is slightly shorter than Uria-Monzon turned out to be an effective casting decision that enhanced Carmen's dominance. In the second act, Lima's rendition of "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" is bold, conveying his growing passion for Carmen. The tenor is particularly effective toward the end, as his desperation increases along with his threats against Carmen.

As the loyal Micaela, Romanian soprano Adina Nitescu's voice has pearly crispness compared to Carmen's sultry depth. American bass Mark S. Doss pulls off a proud, crowd-pleasing rendition of the celebrated bullfighter Escamillo.

Set designer Riccardo Hernández's simple two-dimensional backdrops and Constance Hoffman's dressing of the townsmen in 1940s-era dark suits and felt hats add a cosmopolitan flavor. Director Ron Daniels effectively ends the last scene with a picture of the solitary pair slumped together, instead of having the crowd at the bullfight witness Don José's act. That makes the stage play reminiscent of French film noir.

Because Carmen is almost performed too often, it's difficult for companies to strike a balance between a show that's hackneyed and one that's off-the-wall. The new show isn't either. It gets back to the basics of the story's roots and composer Bizet's native France.

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Cynthia Greenwood