By Rosie Rogers
What kind of woman is Carmen?
Since the premiere of Georges Bizet’s Carmen in 1875 she has been many different things. She can be a dangerous femme fatale, a proto feminist icon, or just another operatic woman doomed to die. In Palm Beach Opera’s Jan. 28 performance of Carmen, J’Nai Bridges’ Carmen fits none of these archetypes. She was fully human — complex, imperfect, and contrasted beautifully by Amanda Woodbury’s captivating Micaëla.
Directed by Garnett Bruce, this Carmen was in its traditional historical setting — as an opera-goer seated behind me at the Kravis Center aptly noted at the beginning of the performance, “this was before women’s lib.”
Conducted by Antonello Allemandi, the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra delivered a high-quality performance with a few minor flaws. When the opera’s five-note “Fate” motive first appeared in the overture it was suitably ominous, if ever so slightly wobbly. Although occasionally slightly out of sync with the singers, the orchestra maintained admirable energy throughout the production.
The children’s chorus was excellent, very sprightly and clearly enjoying themselves as they danced around Christopher Humbert Jr.’s Zuniga, who was another highlight. Humbert’s powerful and open voice gave Zuniga a suitably commanding presence.
This production centered the women in the narrative, portraying both Carmen and Micaëla with depth and empathy. In Micaëla’s introductory scene, Amanda Woodbury was not overly shy and was instead almost playful as she spoke with the guards. When they continue to flirt with her despite her protestations, she was fed up rather than afraid and deftly evaded their advances while mockingly repeating their music back to them. Woodbury’s lively performance made Micaëla feel like an active participant in the narrative.
Just as Micaëla’s comforting diatonicism contrasts with Carmen’s chromaticism, Woodbury’s clear and light soprano contrasted with Bridges’s rich and throaty mezzo. Unfortunately, the beautiful color of Bridges’s voice was sometimes overpowered by the full chorus. The Habanera was one such moment, when her low and warning “prends garde à toi” was slightly covered by the answering chorus.
Carmen’s wingwomen, Mercédès and Frasquita, brought flashes of silliness into the production. Played by Megan Callahan and Avery Boettcher, they were particularly fun in Act III’s fortune-telling scene. Their excellent performances created a moment of delight and humor, which was a welcome relief from Carmen’s increasingly fraught relationship and Micaëla’s solemnity. Micaëla’s aria in Act III was the high point of the production, Woodbury’s sparkling voice granting Micaëla exceptional strength of conviction.
Jonathan Burton’s Don José stood in stark contrast to Zachary Nelson’s Escamillo. While Nelson’s Escamillo was particularly jovial, this Don José was clearly shown to be a violent man from the beginning, eschewing any possibility of his aggression being Carmen’s doing. This interpretation was faithful to the original source material. In Prosper Mérimée’s novella, Don José is a murderer before the narrative even begins. He fled from his hometown and joined the army in Seville after killing another man over a game.
Carmen’s eventual murder by Don José is foreshadowed by his familiarity with aggression throughout. When Don José calls Carmen a witch after their first meeting, Burton fills the word with venom. In Lillas Pastia’s inn, he raises his hand sharply, ready to hit Carmen for asking him to choose her and the army, and we hear the “Fate” theme in the orchestra. In a particularly effective staging decision, Don José grabs Carmen’s hair and forces her to her knees when they fight in the smugglers’ hideout.
Bridges’ performance in this moment made Carmen’s fear visceral, while the portrayal of Don José throughout shows a violent man drawn from reality. It would have been hard to come out of this production feeling any sympathy for Don José, and when he drew his knife in the final scene, Carmen laughed, defiant against his hatred.
Carmen wants to be free from Don José while Micaëla hopes to change him, but ultimately neither can succeed when he chooses violence again and again. Woodbury’s Micaëla is savvy yet naively hopeful, while Bridges’ Carmen was both desperate and triumphant. Micaëla and Carmen ruled the show as two very different, but truly human, women.
Palm Beach Opera’s next production, L’Elisir d’Amore, is set for Feb. 25-27 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. For tickets, call 561-833-7888 or visit pbopera.org.