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Opera Santa Barbara Tempts With ‘Carmen’

The everlasting appeal of he Bizet masterpiece is sure to delight local audiences in the new Granada.

Opera Santa Barbara’s annual two-opera “Festival” is almost upon us. First up is Georges Bizet’s inimitable Carmen, sung in French with English supertitles, which opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and repeats at 2:30 p.m. March 15. Both performances will be in Opera Santa Barbara’s new home at The Granada.

Emily Langford Johnson will sizzle as the title character, Carmen, in the Opera Santa Barbara production of Bizet’s opera.
Emily Langford Johnson will sizzle as the title character, Carmen, in the Opera Santa Barbara production of Bizet’s opera.
Emily Langford Johnson will star as the immortal working-class temptress; hapless Don Jose will be sung by Michael Hayes; Micaela, the “good” girl, by Rena Harms; the charismatic bull-fighter Escamillo by Derrick Parker; and Zuniga by Jamie Offenbach.

Nir Kabaretti will conduct; Vernon Hartman will direct.

Judged by its enduring appeal to all audiences, Carmen may well be the most popular of all grand operas. That is not to say it is the “greatest” — any claimant to that title that is not Don Giovanni will be laughed out of court. But, come to think of it, you could make a case for Carmen being the greatest opera of the 19th century — or, perhaps, the greatest opera since the French Revolution.

It is, in any case, the first, and virtually the only, opera that truly comes to grips with modern age, that draws a timeless story of a ruinous sexual passion through a milieu — soldiers, working girls, entertainers, thieves — that we can recognize as belonging, somewhere, to the real world, the one we all live in. (We are, after all, as far from the noble conspirators and exotic royalty of Verdi as we are from the gods, dragons and incestuous mythological heroes of Wagner. Carmen is perfectly plausible in modern dress; Aïda and Die Walküre are merely distracting.)

One of the things that makes Carmen unique is that Bizet has the musical genius to tell this rather sordid story without cynicism or vulgarity, and to capture these stunted, driven characters in music that neither mocks them with inappropriate grandeur nor patronizes them with cheap honky-tonk. I was 17 the first time I saw Carmen on stage (I was almost in the production, as a nonsinging extra, but that is another story), and it was my first opera. I heard with pleasure all the familiar numbers.

Then, Act Two, Scene 4, I came upon something I had never heard before, because it only appears on complete recordings of the opera. Don Jose has just spent two months in prison, for dereliction of duty; he tells Carmen he would do it again, for love of her. Now, it is time for him to get back to the base, but she wants him to stay with her. Slipping on her castanets, she dances around him clicking and humming a wordless tune that caused quite a spike in my 17-year-old temperature. The bugles sound at the fort; Jose says he’s got to go. Carmen continues her dance and her pheromonic tune. He stays. (“Your debutante just knows what you need,” says Ruthie, in Bob Dylan’s “Memphis Blues Again,” “but I know what you want.”)

Click here to order tickets to Carmen or for more information, or call 805.898.3890.

Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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