A gripping plot and catchy tunes make an enjoyable experience even for opera virgins, says Peter Gordon. A Musica Viva production of the Georges Bizet classic opens in HK tonight.
Mezzo-soprano Carla Lopez Speziale and tenor Luis Chapa sing the lead roles in Musica Viva’s production of Carmen
It’s hard to think of a better recommendation for the opera-c urious than Carmen, in part because just about everybody knows at least one piece of music from it: the so-called “Toreador Song”, the one that goes “Dum-dee-da-dum-dum, dum-dee-da-dee-dum”.
Carmen is set in Seville. In the 19th century, southern Spain evidently had much the same reputation of being a land of sun-soaked exotica as it does among certain foreigners today. Don José, who has left his village to join the army, performs mundane guard duties in the town square. The square fronts onto a cigarette factory whose female workers, due to the heat, roll the smokes in various states of undress. The men gather round to await their break — but mostly, they wait for Carmen. The women emerge, scandalously smoking. Carmen sings the famous “Habanera”, which goes, loosely translated, “I don’t love you, but if I did, boys, you’d better take cover.” Don José ignores her, so she tosses him a flower, laughing.
Micaëla, a girl from home, visits Don José with news of his mother. Micaëla isn’t his girlfriend, but only because good girls didn’t do that sort of thing back then. Don José hides the flower.
Carmen, meanwhile, can’t stay out of trouble and is arrested for fighting on the factory floor. But she bats her eyelids and swings her hips; Don José lets her escape for which he is busted down to private and imprisoned.
Don José ends up deserting the ranks to follow Carmen into a life of crime from which Micaëla can drag him away only with news that his mother wishes to forgive him before she dies. “The chains that bind us,” says José to Carmen as he leaves to descend from the smugglers’ mountain redoubt, “bind us unto death”. Soon afterwards, outside the bullring in Seville, his words prove to be prophetic.
From Spain, via France
Georges Bizet composed the music for Carmen when he was still quite young. Although he had shown great promise with Carmen, most of his other compositions have achieved only limited success so far. The 1875 première of Carmen scandalized many, understandably perhaps given the focus on a woman of somewhat dubious virtue. Inexplicably, others were apparently bored. Bizet, convinced Carmen was a failure, tragically died of a heart attack a few months later, never knowing the huge success his work eventually became.
“Carmen,” says Zoé Simard, Cultural Attachée at the French Consulate General in Hong Kong, “is an important part of France’s cultural heritage, not the least because it is one of the world’s most widely-performed operas.” While it may seem ironic that some of the best-known “Spanish music” was in fact written by a Frenchman, Simard adds that Carmen “attests to the affinity between France and Spanish culture and the close links of friendship with our neighboring country.
Musica Viva’s opening night Don José is sung by Mexican tenor Luís Chapa whom Hong Kong audiences may remember from last year’s Il Trovatore for which, due to a colleague’s indisposition, he was called upon to sing the challenging lead role four times in three days, an almost unheard-of feat managed with deceptive ease and considerable aplomb.
“I have sung Don José more than 100 times around the world,” he says. “He is the product of a strict religious education and a highly explosive temperament and finds himself in circumstances that lead to his catastrophic end.”
“Don José,” Chapa continues, “is one of opera’s greatest tragic roles. José is as strong in his convictions as Carmen in hers — José in his Carmen is as colorful as an opera could get, with spectacular sets and tunes that are eminently hummable. madly destructive love for her and Carmen in her determination for freedom. Neither gives in to the other.”
Mexico has a decades-long tradition of producing leading opera singers who thrill audiences worldwide. In Hong Kong, Chapa is joined by fellow Mexican mezzosoprano Carla Lopez Speziale, for whom singing the lead in Carmen has become a specialty.
The opera, to be sung several times over in Hong Kong in just three days, has multiple casts. Musica Viva has traditionally been able to bring exciting young singers to Hong Kong for what is often their regional debut. Last year’s Il Trovatore featured Marina CostaJackson, the winner of that year’s Metropolitan National Opera Auditions. This year up-and-coming Indian-American tenor Alok Kumar makes his Asian debut as Don José, a role he sings throughout the USA. Kumar is joined in the closing night performance by Hong Kong’s own acclaimed mezzo-soprano Carol Lin.
Shades of grey
If any opera proves that opera isn’t just for the snobs, it’s Carmen. This is popular music in the best sense, with tunes you can hum and melodies that go round in your head for days afterwards.
Bizet’s music is so irresistible that it can obscure the fact that this simple story of a doomed love affair is populated with deep and ambivalent characters. Micaëla, the simple country girl, turns out to be the one with courage and decency. Don José falls for Carmen in spite of himself, with a passion that devours him. He is perhaps tragic, certainly proud, jealous and blind — but men in love all too often are.
Carmen is fiery, thoughtless and completely irredeemable with no regard for anyone but herself, and yet she won’t be pushed around, least of all by men. When Don José returns to find her — stalks her, some might say — she tells him “I was born free and free I shall die!” This is a woman that stands up for herself.
Carmen is 140 years old and yet entirely modern. Its iconic status is owed as much to its music as to its resonances with the present. Carmen still speaks to us, in a way that does not necessarily make us comfortable.