"Carmen" provided a fantastically fun night at the opera. Direction approached the 19th century classic with lightness and humor, which guided the audience through a French interpretation of English-speaking, early 19th century Spain. Composer Georges Bizet refused to travel to Spain to research the score for "Carmen," concerned that it would only confuse him. Instead, he kept the music undeniably French, allowing small Spanish influences to pepper motifs and flavor the entire score. Bizet incorporated popular Spanish songs into his interpretation and also integrated elements of flamenco music.
The St. Olaf production of "Carmen" chose to perform an edition translated from the original French to English, successfully reaching a broader audience. However, due to the ugly hiccups of our own language, the translation lacked the lyrical beauty of the original phrasing. Instead of ignoring the awkward English, St. Olaf's "Carmen" used the random English adages to their advantage by simply allowing them to be funny.
Not only did I find myself in what I hope is the only small English-speaking village in early 19th century Spain, but I found myself in a tiny American English-speaking village in early 19th century Spain! Bizet wrote the score to include dialogue, not recitative. As the opera became popular, editions set the dialogue over music. This English edition may be appreciated for returning to Bizet's foundation, though it does highlight American colloquialisms. By keeping pronunciation in a well-enunciated version of Caf chatter, I never entered the romantically elevated world of opera. Rather, I entered a suspended world, one of fantastic musical story-telling.
The lightness of the portrayal made me hate the character of Carmen for basing her self-validation on men's feelings. I hated the character Don José in the way I hate shirtless campus golfers.
However, some scenes were portrayed too beautifully for my strong feminist interpretations to apply. When Don José proves his love to Carmen, seniors Robert Taylor Baggot IV and Laura Wilde's voices reach such an intimate blend, vibratos working together quietly and flawlessly, they created a love soft and complex. However, the atmosphere of the show had lead me to label those emotions as immature and lust-driven.
When Carmen snubs Don José for the last time (or snubs anyone for the last time, as he kills her), Wilde's powerful rendition changed my perception of the character. Suddenly, I understood her as a victim of her own circumstances, which left me confused as to how I should feel about the character and therefore the meaning of the story.
But not only did Wilde and Baggot's performances impress, Wilde lead an incredible cast. As a bitter-by-nature actress turned English major, I perked my ex-music major ears for that one wobbling mezzo, that one over-excited soprano, that one pop-influenced tenor, that one inattentive bass, all of which I hoped to write off with my obvious superiority. But every single member of the cast gave a stellar performance, and to my own disappointment I was annoyed by absolutely no one.
Another element in which "Carmen" should take pride is the ensemble pieces. All the ensemble pieces boasted quite a continuity. Each of the strongly individual voices achieved a blend I didn't expect to hear in an opera chorus. Apart from the pleasing vocal blend, the fight scenes captivated. I completely bought every violent action on stage. During the fights as well as all the ensemble scenes, the blocking and voicing naturally balanced itself in a very pleasing way.
Despite my confusions, "Carmen" offered a dazzling performance. And I look forward to the next St. Olaf opera performance.