A Steamy and Entertaining Carmen Takes the Stage With Houston Grand Opera

Mezzo Carolyn Sproule as the fiery and doomed Carmen.
Mezzo Carolyn Sproule as the fiery and doomed Carmen. Photo by Lynn Lane

There is no character in opera quite like Carmen (mezzo Carolyn Sproule). She stands alone.

Wagner's Brünhilde is a demi-goddess, too imperious and rather scary. Puccini's Mimi is always sick, probably a hypochondriac; his Tosca is high maintenance and deadly jealous. Strauss's Salome is psycho and way underage, and nobody wants to meet Elektra in a dark alley. Verdi's Aida is a runner up, but her bad choice of lover seals her doom. Don't ever make Pharaoh's daughter angry. Heggie's Sister Prejean is too woke and would whine about your vaping. Carlisle Floyd's Susanna makes the cut, but who's seen her in the last half century?

Who else can compare to this zesty, doomed Lady of Spain. Feisty, independent, and sexy beyond reproach, she's her own Lean-In movement. Carmen lives by her own terms and makes no excuses. When she tires of a lover, she finds another. Unfortunately for her, she falls for ordinary guy Don Jose (tenor Richard Trey Smagur), and his conventionality ultimately drives him nutty with jealousy and possessiveness. Although in the arms of superstar matador Escamillo (baritone Christian Pursell), she achieves her 15 minutes of fame and respectability but seals her fate when she tosses that rose at Jose outside the cigarette factory. Yet, she faces her demise with cold-blooded acceptance. No regrets. As she attests in what may be her credo, I'm doing my own thing, and if that kills me, so be it.

No, in these days, and many more to come, there's no one more modern, no one more in tune with the world today, than Georges Bizet's Carmen. That's why she's immortal. She resonates through every age.

After a lukewarm Paris premiere – a few of the reviews were downright vicious, some were OK, not one was a rave – Bizet prematurely died during the Paris run. Supplemented with musical recitatives instead of dialogue, the opera made a big splash in Vienna. Contrary to all stereotypes, the staid Viennese were more forgiving of this fiery free woman than the nonchalant Parisians, which turned the tide in the opera's favor. The work has made a splash ever since. Although there is no critical edition of the score and the opera's been tinkered with even before Vienna, what the Parisians reviled for its coarseness and bad taste has now joined the pantheon of opera masterpieces.

If there's one opera in the rep that lends itself to a Broadway makeover, it's evergreen Carmen. In its original 1875 form, the piece had spoken dialogue between music passages, what the French called an opera-comique, what we now call a musical. Even when sung through, as is this Houston Grand Opera co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Carmen's still like a Broadway show. A very good one. Obviously, this is because the director and choreography is Broadway royalty Rob Ashford, Tony-winner for Thoroughly Modern Millie, and recipient of multiple Emmys, Oliviers, and Drama Desks. He's a pro down to his tap shoes.

As in any respectable musical, there's plenty of opportunity for dancing. Ashford has an eye for the visual and he knows how to stage an effective crowd scene. Watch how he groups the chorus around Escamillo in Pastia's tavern. As the toreador struts down the table, the people change position to keep him strongly in frame. The focus always remains on him, but the foreground shifts imperceptibly, not twice but three times. This is mighty fine stage direction. The idea of the dancing bull, who pops up whenever Carmen's “fate” motif is heard, is unnecessary overkill, but the pyrotechnical toreadors and those mantilla-draped senoritas with their clothesline-length skirts, thanks to costumier Julie Weiss, add immense color to the sun-drenched minimal vistas designed by David Rockwell and lit to perfection by Donald Holder.

You can't beat the irresistible numbers that keep coming one after another – Carmen's opening aria, the slinky “Habenera” that descends the scale as she brazenly sings, “love is a bird that no one can tame;” or, soon-to-follow, her equally famous “Seguidilla,” in which she entices naive Jose to her favorite tavern where she promises she will dance for him, along with other unsaid promises. Has any show had a racier beginning? We're hooked.

Even sweet, virginal Micaela (soprano Heidi Stober) tempts Jose with purity of song, a grand opera duet that vibrates straight out of Gounod's Faust. Later she wanders into the smugglers' lair to rescue him with her haunting prayer, “I say I'm not afraid.” The hits never stop. Egocentric Escamillo enters with his famous “Toreador Song,” parodied in perpetuity as “Toreador, don't spit on the floor, use the cuspidor, that's what it's for...” (That was awfully funny in fourth grade.)

There are lesser beauties throughout, but beauties nonetheless: the wonderfully bouncy “Smugglers Quintet,” a tongue-twisting patter song that literally skips along as the thieves merrily promote the bad life they love to live; the evocative “Card Trio,” where friends Frasquita (soprano Raven McMillon) and Mercedes (mezzo Sun-Ly Pierce) laugh at their good fortune, while Carmen accepts her deadly fate. Then there are those exquisite Bizet “entr'actes,” the four preludes to each act that set the scenes with such minimal effort but such maximum effect. Each is a miniature tone poem.

Ashford's production premiered at HGO during the 2013-2014 season, but this revival is definitive. Sproule, who sang Mercedes in that production, is astonishing. Her Carmen is, first and foremost, a magnetic stage beauty, whose flared skirts split all the way to Seville. She owns her power. Her eyes flash, her smile radiates. Who could resist her? And then there's that voice – deep and rich, a plummy and complex Rioja Alta. She is fearless. Wily and smart, her Carmen doesn't care about rules and propriety. When she commits, she expects her lover to do the same. If he falters, she's out of here. It's all there in her radiantly smoky voice. She commands the stage and you can't take your eyes off her – or your ears. Her Don Jose, Smagur, is another up-and-comer, who should be a prime contender for those iconic heldentenor Wagnerian and Strauss roles. He has power to spare, an unfailing technique, a trumpet's clarion call, and is the tallest person on stage. You can't miss him. His flexible, melodious voice carries without a sweat throughout the cavernous Wortham. The two of them spark, and what's Carmen without sparks.

click to enlarge
Carmen (Carolyn Sproule) and her new lover Escamillo (Christian Pursell)
Photo by Lynn Lane

Bass-baritone Pursell, another young artist on the rise, impressively sings Escamillo as if born in a bullring. His French diction is impeccable and he swirls his overcoat like a matador. But it's his cavernous baritone that wins Carmen's heart. It wins ours, too.

Soprano Heidi Stober, another former HGO Studio artist, has the most difficult job of all, portraying wimpy Micaela, whose character was added to Meilhac and Halevy's libretto as a sop to French family values. Virginal and skittish, she carries a torch for Jose, as well as a not-so-subtle kiss from mom to be given to her son. She's a throwback to grand opera days long past and can be portrayed as a dishrag when chirpy soubrettes take on the role, but Stober's burnished and powerful soprano gives her surprising depth and solemnity. Stober's Act I duet with Jose is a classic as is her final aria. These numbers are Bizet at his most radiantly old-fashioned, they're real crowd pleasers in emotion and sweeping French melody. Stober stops the show each time with her dramatic interpretation and golden pipes.

Meanwhile in the pit, making her HGO debut, maestro Lidiya Yankovskaya, a fierce advocate of contemporary opera, keeps Bizet's spicy paella on full boil. The “entr'actes” are especially tasty.
The chorus sounds exceptional, whether the factory girls sing the praises of smoking, or the smugglers hail “la liberté,” or the excited crowd outside the bullring cheers their favorites.

If you've never seen Carmen, this HGO production is steamy, provocative, drenched in neon jewel tones, and thoroughly entertaining – the ultimate in gypsy love.

Carmen continues at 2 p.m. Sunday, October 24; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, October 28; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 30; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 3; 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 5; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 6; 2 p.m. Sunday, November 7. (Mezzo Sarah Mesko sings Carmen and tenor Scott Glenn sings Don Jose on November 6, conducted by Benjamin Manis.) Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-228-OPERA (6737) or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25 - $255. Masks required for all performances.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover