Fa­tal at­trac­tion

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.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE HK -

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.

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