Woman as daemon: 2. “Carmen”

A mystery:  In Highland Park a few weeks ago, a cigarette-factory worker seduced a soldier.   Their brief, torrid affair ended with the soldier murdering her.  Although 200 people witnessed the killing, the LAPD was not called.

We bystanders were watching the Pacific Opera Project perform   Carmen, a Romantic-era story that — set to Georges Bizet’s music — has been a worldwide favorite for well over 100 years.

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There’s no mystery about Pacific Opera’s production — it was a triumph.  With just a week’s rehearsal, the young singers (led by music director Stephen Karr from the piano) created a lively, colorful staging of the world’s best-known opera.  They enthusiastically filled the cabaret-style house with romance, humor and tragic drama.

And music.  As an ensemble, the POP singers summoned Bizet’s rich musical world, drew us in and kept us there — without an orchestra.  That’s a stunning accomplishment few opera troupes would dare, much less achieve.

Vocally, the cast ranged from quite good to quite remarkable.   The two leads — mezzo Norah Graham-Smith (Carmen) and tenor Adam Cromer (Don José) — were comfortably equal to their lengthy, demanding roles, and each delivered clear, moving arias.  They both excelled at singing in dialogue with (not simply at) other characters.  Graham-Smith also managed the ceaseless flow of energy, sexuality, wit and emotion with which Carmen propels the entire story.

The two second singers — soprano Aubrey Scarr (as Micaela, Don José’s fiancée) and bass-baritone Babatunde Akinboboye (as the bullfighter Escamillo) nearly stole the show.   Granted, their roles are shorter, and the script doesn’t require as much action from them — though Escamillo bounced through the house, working the room like a rock star.  Nonetheless, each displayed vocal purity and power, and verbal clarity, that was a delight to hear.

In smaller roles, mezzo Meagan Martin (Mercédès) and soprano Nicole Fernandes (Frasquita) sparkled — but with due restraint — in their duet work, and in trio with Graham-Smith.

Director Shaw created an open, versatile setting (with highly dramatic lighting) and Maggie Green’s colorful, clearly readable costumes suggested the period without getting lost in it.

It’s easy to understand why the audience punctuated the show with vigorous applause, and stood cheering at the end.

There’s also no mystery about Bizet’s score.  Its major themes have become part of our popular culture.  If you stop a stranger in a mall and hum the first few bars of Carmen’s habanera, or of  Escamillo’s “Toreador Song,” they can probably join in — though they may never have been to an opera.

The mystery about Carmen is the story.   Do we just put up with it in order to have the music?  No — when that’s the case, the opera stops being performed and the music survives without it.  Look at Handel’s oratorios, and most of Baroque opera.

It seems that the story itself — an amoral femme fatale who nearly tears apart the society she lives in, and does destroy her lover — touches a chord with us.  With audiences worldwide, for that matter.

My guess is that she embodies what’s pushed away, out of  society and out of mind — woman’s sexuality, and her ability to enjoy and own it.  Carmen became popular in an era when sex was, as the Victorian saying had it, “something men enjoy and women endure.”   “Good women” did not desire sex, and such things were never discussed in polite society.

(We’re not as far from that era as we like to think.  My grandmother first offered to tell my mother about sex as they were riding the train to my parents’ wedding;  and just last week, a friend with two teen children admitted she’s never had an orgasm.)

I suspect we’re still fascinated by Carmen not just because she’s sexy, but because in her fierce independence and amorality she embodies something we know is still missing from our world.  A force we, like the Victorians, fear will erupt and shatter our social order.

Moralist preachers and politicians keep trying to harness women’s bodies; and Don José keeps murdering Carmen, every time Act IV comes around.  But she keeps returning, and we keep flocking to see her, hear her, feel her vitality.  Want a  tip?  Don’t bet on Don José.