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Seville Disobedience: Was Carmen a Feminist?

Ed Rampell: Carmen may be a Roma woman from the lower classes, but she exerts power through her sexuality and the force of her overpowering (some might say “overbearing”?) personality.
Carmen

CARMEN Opera Review

How blessed we Angelenos are: LA Opera’s Carmen is opera at its grandest, right here on Grand Avenue. I was immediately swept away by the opening strains of the “Prelude,” with Georges Bizet’s ebullient sounds as frothy as wave rolling ashore at Malibu or Makapuu in Oahu. When James Conlon strode up to conduct the 61-piece LA Opera Orchestra to launch his 10th year wielding the baton at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and LA Opera’s glorious new season, the sold out crowd erupted in applause, chanting: “Connie! Connie! Connie!” (Okay, so that’s a total lie about the shouts - but not the clapping, although I imagine many of us did indeed feel like calling out the maestro’s moniker in acclaim.)

Bizet’s four act masterpiece (the French composer’s 1863 The Pearl Fishers opens Oct. 7 at LA Opera) premiered in Paris in 1875, and was based on Prosper Merimee’s novel, with a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy. Carmen is here presented with two intermissions over the course of about three and a half hours, making it a bit of an operatic marathon. However, the stirring music and absorbing story carry spectators over the inevitable finish line, with characters and a plot epitomizing the sizzling stuff opera’s high strung passions are made of.

Carmen (Puerto Rican Ana María Martínez, a stellar soprano) portrays the Seville tobacco factory woman who rolls cigarettes or cigars and is described as a “Gypsy.” (As this is now widely regarded as a culturally insensitive ethnic slur I shall use today’s more commonly accepted appellation, “Roma.”) What is especially remarkable about the title character is that despite the fact Carmen is a female member of a minority group and of the industrial proletariat in 19th century patriarchal, capitalist, Catholic Spain - thus triply oppressed - she insists on living life on her own terms.

Carmen may be a Roma woman from the lower classes, but she exerts power through her sexuality and the force of her overpowering (some might say “overbearing”?) personality.

Carmen may be a Roma woman from the lower classes, but she exerts power through her sexuality and the force of her overpowering (some might say “overbearing”?) personality. In boldly choosing her sexual partners Carmen plays a role conventionally designated for the male of the species. First she woos and wows the low ranking soldier Don José (alternately portrayed by Italian spinto tenor by Riccardo Massi and Montana tenor Brandon Jovanovich). Then Carmen ups her game by romancing Escamillo (Moscow-born bass Alexander Vinogradov, who debuted at the Bolshoi Theatre), the famed matador, whom she initially encounters in the first scene of Act II at the Tavern of Lillas Pastia.

Note that both of Carmen’s beaus are in stereotypically hyper-masculine professions - the military and bullfighting - but she is a match for both of them. Don José is deeply conflicted by his affair with Carmenita, as he deals with the virginal Micaëla (American soprano Amanda Woodbury, a winner of General Director Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition for young talents), who visits from his Spanish village with news of the soldier’s mother. Mamacita never appears onstage but is an important factor in this Freudian drama, wherein Carmen symbolizes the uninhibited, unrestrained libidinous id. Micaëla represents “virtue” and platonic love and his mother, of course, personifies the superego and maternal love, with carnal Carmen the embodiment of lust and desire.

Carmen is arguably the archetype of the “hot Latina” trope - who proves to be too hot to handle. It’s not only a battle of the sexes but a war of the wills. Not content to remain a tobacco factory plebe, our gal Carmen turns towards banditry, leading the weak-willed Don José astray, with a band of bandits trafficking in contraband in the mountains (perhaps the Pyrenees).

Of course, this highly charged passionate plot is brought to life with all of the artistic arrows available in opera’s quiver. First of all is its first class music, among the finest in the medium’s repertoire, accompanied by lovely lyrics sung in French. While the score can be fervent and jovial, it ranges to the whimsical, such as in Act I’s first scene at a square in Seville, as myriad impish urchins childishly mimic the changing of the guard by the dragoons, which is sure to charm the pants off of you.

Carmen

Coquettish Carmen’s airy aria “Habanera” is flirtatious, lilting and the cigarette roller’s bold declaration of her credo regarding romance and sex, opening with the spoken question: “Quand je vous Aimerai?” (“When will I Love You?”) The Roma woman goes on to sing to the assembled soldiers and tobacco factory female proles in the Seville square: “Love is a rebellious bird, That none can tame…” Of course, Carmen is also singing about her free-spirited self and in doing so, is throwing down the gender gauntlet, as she is - within the conventions of patriarchy - assuming what is generally regarded by male chauvinists to be the man’s prerogative: To choose one’s sexual partner - even multiple partners in Carmen’s audacious case. Martinez convincingly, fetchingly renders the aria. Va-va-va-voom!

At the tavern, Escamillo makes one of the grandest entrances in show biz history, buoyed by his celebrity as one of Spain’s greatest matadors. Like a rock star with his entourage and pussy posse, he strides into Lillas Pastia’s watering hole. As Escamillo waltzes in, the bullfighter’s swagger is matched by Bizet’s thrilling, unforgettable “Toreador Song,” one of the greatest numbers in the operatic canon. Vinogradov pulls it off like a cross between a gangsta rapper and an NFL quarterback winning Grammys or the Super Bowl.

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At the end of Act II, Carmen rhapsodizes about freedom, singing about “the intoxication of liberty, liberty” where “your wish is the law.” Thus the wild-hearted outlaw Carmen entices the pussy-whipped Don José to join her high up in the mountains with a band of smugglers, far from civilization and its discontents, defying society and its staid standards. One could say that Carmen practiced a form of “Seville disobedience.”

In addition to expertly performed songs with divine musical accompaniment, the acting of the leads and the 50-plus cast is excellent. As are the sets - from Seville to the mountains to the tavern to the bullring - expertly wrought by Gerardo Trotti. The costumes - including those shocking pink socks of the bullfighting coterie! - by Denitsa Bliznakova and Jesus del Pozo capture the essence of this period piece, which is admirably directed by Ron Daniels. I’m obliged to give a special shout out to choreographer Nuria Castejon, for what I assume to be greatly expanding two numbers with flamboyant flamenco dancing that - like this production is overall - are simply joys to behold.

Carmen

Was Carmen a feminist or proto-feminist? Despite her freewheeling ways, she winds up the way sexually free female characters often do in (probably male written!) literature, the stage and screen, since the biblical Jezebel to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. According to repressive patriarchal ideology, women who have sex must be punished - especially if they are orgasmic and enjoy making love (or just plain fucking). And Carmen must have been the world’s greatest lay! One can perceive her as a fallen woman who leads Don José into the depths of decadence, causing his downfall and deranged behavior. Someday, we will have operas (or some art form yet undreamt of), wherein Carmen will slay the Don Josés of the world!

Until then, we Angelenos must revel in the fact that we are fortunate to be able to enjoy unsurpassed productions such as Carmen, one of the pinnacles of human culture. With this ultimate crowd pleaser (in the best sense), LA Opera ‘s new season (see details below) - among its most ambitious and promising ever - is off and running, starting with a bang. Bravissimo!

Carmen will be performed Sept. 14, Sept. 20, and Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays Sept. 17 and Oct. 1 at 2:00 p.m. (an added seventh performance) and Sept. 23 at 7:00 p.m. at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. See: https://www.laopera.org/season/1718-Season/Carmen/.

Carmen

Highlights of LA Opera’s 2017/2018 Season include:

  • Plácido Domingo conducting Pearl Fishers, starring in the title role of Nabucco and being celebrated for his 50 years in Los Angeles (not at LA Opera, but on the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion).
  • Candide is part of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial celebration and our commitment to always including a contemporary work in every season.
  • Orpheus and Eurydice is a co-production with Lyric Opera and includes the Joffrey Ballet
  • Matthew Aucoin will conduct Rigoletto, his original work Crossing will be presented at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
  • NEW: Hubble Cantata, for example, is in partnership with the Ford Theater. (Oct. 11)
  • Philip Glass’ gorgeous score and ensemble in La Belle et la Bête at The Theatre at the Ace Hotel.
  • An adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic film Persona at REDCAT.
  • Off Grand’s double bill of Gordon Getty’s Usher House and Canterville Ghost at The Broad Stage.
  • A recital with Renee Fleming in February, along with an Audra McDonald concert slated in May.

For details see: https://www.laopera.org/season/1718-Season/.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Dziga Vertov’s documentary The Man With the Movie Camera on Friday, 7:30 p.m., Sept. 22, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: laworkersedsoc@gmail.com. Rampell is a co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist(see: https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/hollywood-blacklist-tribute)