Central City’s “Carmen” is smoking
Central City Opera’s “Carmen” is everything you want it to be, and then some — sexy, sultry and just a little sleazy. Its famous heroine uses and abuses just as she is known to do, teasing men and tempting fate until it all catches up to her in one violent moment.
As a production, it is pleasing and terrifically tight and ultratraditional, just as its creators imagined it in 1875. Director Jose Maria Condemi has, for the most part, resisted messing with the formula as some like to do to keep familiar titles fresh for audiences who have seen them a dozen times or more. Instead, he has gone the opposite way, pushing his characters to feel and indulge in the nuances of composer Georges Bizet’s emphatic music. Everything, from the costumes to the sets to the singing, honors the opera’s lusty, lurid essence.
Call the fire department, this “Carmen” is smoking. And so is everyone else on stage; they light up cigarettes at every chance. Condemi employs their deliberate puffs as punctuation marks. Carmen can use her long draw as a come on, stretching her neck and offering a seductive, sideways glance. Or she can make it a turn-off, exhaling a rude cloud directly in a suitor’s face.
It’s not all so tough, this show, thanks to soprano Emily Pulley, who makes a difficult character appealing. Carmen is a self-described devil who depends on her physical allure to get what she wants. She isn’t nice to the men or the women she encounters in this story.
What makes her enduring, though, is her tenaciousness and pride. She knows who she is — a second-class citizen in a world where men rule and gypsies like her are scorned — but she represents with dignity, taking on all challengers. Pulley has the acting chops to bring audiences along for the ride.
She also has that other thing every Carmen needs to succeed: a killer voice. Pulley’s is rich and earthy, full of charisma. It yanks a listener in; turns an unlikable dragon deadly enchanting.
“Carmen” is not easy to pull off at the Central City Opera
House, one of the smallest opera venues in the country. The theater has just 550 seats and the stage is so small, it can sometimes feel like you are watching a big-screen television rather than witnessing the world’s most elaborate art form. That is, of course, both the joy and the challenge of this local, cultural treasure.
This production does, at times, suffer from the limited size of the house. The so-called “march of the toreadors” in Act 2, one of the most famous scenes in all of opera, calls for an elaborate pageant treatment — and that’s really not possible in Central City. Things don’t shift so gracefully from the forest to the bullfighting arena to the cigar factory; it’s no one’s fault, only so much scenery can fit in this place.
But this production overcomes that obstacle via its stellar cast. The chorus is particularly youthful and dynamic. The orchestra, with Adam Turner conducting, adds an energy that’s both complimentary and engaging on its own.
Then there is tenor Adriano Graziani, who brings protagonist-antagonist Don José to a slow and powerful boil; soprano Angela Mortellaro, who makes the questionablywritten character of Micaëla actually sound interesting; and baritone Michael Mayes, a Central City favorite, who blends comedy and gallantry into a memorable Escamillo. These characters are all stalwarts of the genre, and they’re resurrected with skill and respect.
This is summer opera at its most appealing. It’s familiar in that way opera audiences enjoy, but not so reverent that it feels like another warhorse on repeat. It’s a good choice for both regulars and folks who have never made the journey to the hills of Central City.
Emily Pulley is Carmen and Adriano Graziani is Don José in the Central City Opera’s “Carmen.”