This weekend, Sept. 29-Oct. 1, Opera Santa Barbara will offer a new production of “Carmen” (1875), with music by Georges Bizét and a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on the novella by Prosper Mérimée.
Fenlon Lamb will direct the stage action; Kostis Protopapas will conduct the Opera Santa Barbara Orchestra and Chorus; and the quartet of main characters will be performed by Sarah Saturnino (Carmen), Nathan Granner (Don José), Anya Matanovic (Micaëla), and Colin Ramsey (Escamillo).
The opera tells a contemporary story, about specific people, in contrast with the usual shuffling of commedia dell’arte plots and characters, or scrambled anecdotes from classical mythology.
The characters are more typical than finely shaded, but they still represent a quantum leap towards the modern “realism” of Puccini or Menotti.
Carmen is a factory girl, rolling and packing cigarettes for a living (if you can call it that). She is also a vivacious and sexually active young woman, with many friends among her sisters on the line, and many male admirers among the town bravos.
When she makes a move on some guy, or invites him to move on her, she is overwhelming. But variety is the spice of her life, and after awhile, she is ready to overwhelm a new man (Mérimée’s novella is remarkably free of moral value judgments; the Meilhac and Halévy libretto, less so).
Don José is a junior lieutenant in a provincial garrison, a romantic schmo engaged to his childhood sweetheart Micaëla, a steadfast and virtuous — and, as it proves, courageous — beauty.
One look at Carmen, whose wordless song of seduction is her most highly charged aria, and José is a gonner.
Escamillo, the bullfighter, is a pop star, a cultural hero, a natural chick magnet, and a baritone. He holds all the cards, and his aria is the opera’s biggest show-stopper.
Escamillo is the kind of catnip for Carmen that she is for every other man she meets. And he’s the only one who gets out of it scot-free.
The French public, which embraced without cavail the most absurd oriental fantasies or the silliest aristocratic hijinx, rejected the naturalism of “Carmen” as sordid (reminding me of Oscar Wilde‘s remark, in the Preface to “The Picture of Dorian Gray”: “The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.”).
Bizet, who died at the 33rd performance, never knew he had created an archetypal modern work that was destined to become one of the most popular and most performed operas in the entire repertory.
Considering “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Habanera) and “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre” (“Toreador Song”) are the only regularly excerpted numbers from the opera, the quantity of familiar melodies swirling throughout the opera is rather astonishing.
But, then, Bizet was a remarkable composer, whose other scores richly reward a closer, more frequent listening.
Carmen plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29 and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1 at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.
Admission to the Friday performance is $69-$219, and to the Sunday performance, $90-$219, (Ages 8-18 admitted free).
To buy tickets, call the Granada Box Office, 805-899-2222, email email@example.com, or visit https://ticketing.granadasb.org/18283/18712.