Bizet's "Carmen" is so familiar that one tends to take it for granted. But any performance -- even a mediocre one -- makes it impossible to take for granted so daring, so dramatically imaginative and so psychologically penetrating a piece of musical theater. And when a performance is as provocative, intelligently staged, cast, designed and performed as the Washington Opera's new production, which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, "Carmen" is overwhelming.
The concept behind director Ann-Margret Pettersson's staging of "Carmen" is simple, powerful and true to Bizet's music and his libretto. Carmen represents the "other" as female: She is sensual; she exists beyond the pull of conventional morality; and she lives only for pleasure. But -- and this is what puts her among the great dramatic creations -- she demands for herself the freedom in sexual matters that men take for granted. It is this that makes Carmen a femme fatale -- fatal not only to men, but also to herself.
Pettersson brilliantly stages her entrance. On a stage dominated by the hot yellow colors of the tobacco factory, Carmen appears in a manner that tells us immediately why she threatens the natural (i.e. male-created and -dominated) order.
The other "girls" enter from the doors on the upper stage. But when "Where is Carmacita," is asked, huge doors below fly open with a crash. Hellgate -- metaphorically speaking -- has burst to reveal Denyce Graves' Carmen standing in a provocatively clinging black dress.
That entrance from below identifies Carmen with the heat of the nether regions. And there's one other detail that identifies Carmen as particularly dangerous. Unlike the other "girls," who make their entrances with lighted cigarettes, Carmen makes hers with a long, thick cigar between her lips.
When she immediately launches into Bizet's famous "Habanera," therefore, we listen more carefully than usual when Carmen tells us that she cannot be restrained when she feels the urge to make love. We have heard such operatic credos before -- from the lascivious Duke in Verdi's "Rigoletto" or from the famously libertine Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera of that name. The difference is that Carmen is a woman. What the cigar suggests, the "Habanera" tells us: where conventional morality is concerned, Carmen is a woman with a penis.
"Carmen" stands or falls on the title character. And one suspects that the Carmen of Denyce Graves -- a young Washington-born mezzo who's already appeared at La Scala, Covent Garden and the Vienna State Opera and is scheduled for a debut at the Met as Carmen -- may be to the 1990s and early years of the next millennium what Rise Stevens' was to the 1940s and '50s.
Her excellent singing and terrific acting combined with an ability to use her physical beauty in a suggestive manner that never is merely cheap help to make her a singer who inhabits, rather than performs, Carmen.
Director Pettersson's conception of the opera turns Jose, already a pitiful figure, into the type of the pathetically angry white male who regularly visits the columns of Ellen Goodman. It's a perfectly viable -- perhaps even logical -- view of the role and one that tenor Neil Rosenshein copes with reasonably well. The terrible climax is particularly effective: Jose, now reduced to a form of life somewhat lower than that of an earthworm, pleads with Carmen for love for the last time. The manner in which Jose stabs her -- after her proclamation of love for Escamillo -- is made to suggest a brutal (and inexperienced) act of sexual penetration.
The only misstep in the production was casting Gregg Baker as Escamillo. Perhaps Pettersson felt she need a huge -- Baker is well over 6 1/2 feet tall -- handsome, black man to try to match the extraordinary physical impact of Graves, who is also African-American. But while Baker looked great -- and though the audience loved him -- his weighty bass-baritone wasn't flexible enough for Escamillo, and the way he belted out the Toreador's song missed its wit and sophistication.