There are several operas that can be considered the classic gateway to enjoying this art form: pieces that are so popular in their own right they almost transcend the term “classic” in the sense that we, in 2015, toss that word around (sometimes, even, adding that dreaded “instant” in front of it). These operas are the ones opera fans use to introduce novices to in hopes, operas that people will quote as the first one they saw. All of them marry melodrama, high drama and glamour in ways that cannot be quite replicated in any other way but with a full orchestra, and a world-class voice casting. La Boheme is one of those. Tosca is another. Madame Butterfly a. And, of course, Carmen. And, if you’re feeling difficult and moody, Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Washington National Opera is opening their 60th season with one of those (Carmen) and closing with another (the Ring Cycle). In between there will be Philip Glass, Kurt Weil, and a classic holiday fairy tale. But the book-ends are clearly intended to both appease their long-term fans and subscribers and draw new audiences in.
Their production of Carmen (which runs through October 3rd, and for which we were lucky to be invited to do a behind-the-scenes of piece on) hits all the necessary buttons: the sweeping cast, the sky high emotions, two French mezzo sopranos (a point of pride for the French language opera), iconic arias and a storyline that involves gypsies, bullfights, soldiers and love and lust around every corner.
Those who see it for the first time will doubtlessly enjoy it, those who are seeing it for the 10th time (and the day we attended, the appreciative audience seemed to be comprised of both) may find themselves comparing it to some other staging they enjoyed more (one of the downsides of a theatrical classic of any kind, is that everyone does have the version that made them fall in love with it), but in the end the verdict is simple: it is good.
Geraldine Chauvet in the titular role (which she shares with Clementine Margaine across the production) was capricious and fun, though her voice doesn’t carry quite as much in the big Opera house as you wish for this larger-than-life seductress role. The rest of the cast is jovial and having a great time, with some of the younger cast clearly relishing having a chance to have fun with one of their favorite classics.
There are few moments where you feel something innovative is happening: the flamenco touches are nice, the introduction of booming spoken voices on top of the singing is daring (Even if it shows off the slightly less than perfect accents of the non-native French speaking cast) but aside from that: it is very much business as usual.
Still, as far as escapism this season goes, being in a gorgeous room, surrounded by gorgeous voices, with the sounds of the Habanera bouncing around you, is pretty high on our list. We can’t wait to see what WNO has in store for the rest of the season, because they are clearly just warming up.