Opera Warhorses

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Review: Stephen Lawless’ Creative New “Carmen” Production Opens 2014 Santa Fe Opera Season – June 27, 2014

June 28th, 2014

British Stage Director Stephen Lawless’ brilliantly conceived new production of “Carmen” was unveiled at Santa Fe Opera, with notable performances by Argentine mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack as Carmen, Italian tenor Roberto de Biasio as Don Jose, Lebanese soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Micaela, and Greek bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo.

The production’s most remarkable features were the arresting video projections of British cinematographer Jon Driscoll, whose black and white “motion pictures” of the nitty-gritty of bullfighting spanned the entire width of the Santa Fe Opera stage.

The projections also provide the opportunity for the visualization of such plot elements as Micaela’s bedside observation of the failing health of Don Jose’s mother, who desperately wishes to see her son one final time, and for such images as the procession of the bullfighters in the final scene.

[Below: Jon Driscoll’s projection for a bullfight procession as a crowd watches from above; edited image of a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Breaking Bad et al.

The opera’s action was shifted to the mid-20th century and its geographical location to an unamed Mexican state like Chihuahua, near the Texas border.

The change of venue from Southern Spain to Northern Mexico provides Lawless with many opportunities for unexpected allusions to contemporary culture, which include the tragic life and death of singer Amy Winehouse, drug smuggling and human trafficking at a porous section of the U. S.-Mexican border,  and events inspired by the New Mexico-based cable-television drama Breaking Bad.

Since I plan to review this production twice (Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez is scheduled to assume the title role for the August 2014 performances), I will comment more extensively to these cultural references in my second review.

For potential audience members who might be concerned that they won’t get every reference, don’t worry. The music and theatricality embedded in “Carmen” transcends virtually any innovation of a director who, like Lawless, cherishes the work, and Lawless’ ideas are often fascinating.

[Below: Daniela Mack as Carmen; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Integrating Live Action and Video Projections

Lawless’ frequent collaborator, Benoit Dugardyn, designed the sets. Dugardyn’s ingenious sets include a mid-stage line of tall, shallow boxes and a deep-stage semi-circle with an upper balcony and enclosed spaces below.

Each of the sets could be hidden or broken apart as needed to advance Lawless’ dramatic ideas.

The upper balcony served as the second floor of Lillas Pastia’s tavern and as an observation point for various individuals and groups in other scenes.

[Below: soldiers (above) observe the cigarette girls taking their work break (on main stage floor) with interest.]


The lower semi-circle was used effectively for a rim of night club tables at which are seated the audience for center stage song and dance performances by Carmen, Frasquita, Mercedes and Escamillo.

The box sets formed the mid-stage screen for the projections, and also served as functional spaces where details of the action occurred.

Panels in the mid-stage box sets would open to reveal, for example, a jail holding cell, which forms a dramatic focus for the interactions of Mack’s Carmen, de Biasio’s Don Jose and California bass Evan Hughes’ Zuniga.

The Vocal Performances

The production was based on the original version of the opera that debuted in 1875 at Paris’ Opera-Comique. Less often heard than the standard version revised after Bizet’s untimely death, it contains spoken dialogue.

For Daniela Mack, Carmen is a role that suits her secure mezzo-soprano, and one expects this will be a signature role throughout her career.

[Below: Micaela (Joyce El-Khoury, left) brings Don Jose (Roberto de Biasio, right) a kiss from his mother; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Robert de Biasio’s winsome lyric tenor produced a revelatory Don Jose, with an expressiveness and vocal coloration (even a beautiful head tone in the Flower Song) that is often missing in the heavier voices one usually hears in this role.

Joyce El-Khoury was a brilliant Micaela, impressive throughout her range, projecting both the vulnerability and grit of her character.

In Lawless’ conceptualization, Escamillo is something of a celebrity substance-abuser, so that at Pastia’s tavern, instead of the character’s usual swagger, we get a drunken stagger.

Thus, Kostas Smoriginas not only had to negotiate the Toreador Song (no slam-dunk to sing, despite its familiarity), but also had to emulate a drunken performer attempting Elvis Presley’s pelvic motions. He delivered the goods.

[Below: Escamillo (Kostas Smoriginas, center, riding mechanical bull) engages in a bit of self-promotion; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Carmen’s companions Frasquita (Connecticut soprano Amanda Opuszynski) and Mercedes (Minnesota mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen) made a fine impression, especially in the card scene, in which their predicted fates were so much happier than that of Carmen herself.

Mack’s Carmen and her companions were joined at Pastia’s in the Carmen Quintet by Wisconsin tenor Noah Baetge as Le Remendado and Connecticut baritone Dan Kempson as Le Dancaire.

The quintet itself was a cocaine-laced affair that confirmed the objective of this particular smuggling operation.

(At scene’s end, the introduction of – an at first reluctant – Don Jose to cocaine was an edgy, but interesting, touch.)

New York baritone Ricardo Rivera sang impressively as Corporal Morales, who leads an unkempt platoon of policemen (ogling girly magazines) at the opera’s beginning and appears in a cameo in the crowd attending Escamillo’s last act bullfight.

The boy’s chorus is portrayed as streetwise Mexican boys who emerge from storage bins.

[Below: Mexican boys emerge from storage bins; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The Santa Fe Orchestra was led by Scottish conductor Rory MacDonald. Jorge Jara designed the costumes. Nicola Bowie was the choreographer.

An Enduring Santa Fe Opera French Connection? 

The 2014 season marks the fifth in a row that a venerable late 19th century French work received an updated new production – including major French repertory works never before performed at the Santa Fe Opera summer festivals.

Engaged for these efforts was an impressive list of international directors of the first rank: Christopher Alden mounting a new critical edition of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” [(Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010)] and in 2011 Stephen Lawless’ time-shifted “Faust”, an opera never before performed by this company [Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last: Hymel, Perez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011.]

For the 2012 season, Director Lee Blakeley moved Bizet’s “Pecheurs de Perles” forward in time [The Stylishly Gallic Santa Fe Opera: Eric Cutler, Nicole Cabell Radiant in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” – July 31, 2012], as he did a classic Offenbach comedy for 2013’s season opener [Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013.]

The 2014 season opening “Carmen” represents the third time in four years that a major re-conceptualization of a French work opened the season.

(The 2015 season will continue the exploration of the French repertory, opening with a new Ned Canty production of another work never before done at Santa Fe Opera, Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment”.)


I recommend this production and cast of “Carmen”, both to the veteran opera-goer and for persons new to opera, particularly those interested in the theatrical potential of video projections in opera.


For my reviews of other Daniela Mack performances, see: Martinez, Jovanovich Lead Brilliant Cast for McVicar’s Exotic “Rusalka” Dreamworld – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 10, 2014, and also,

Daniela Mack, Alek Shrader, Auden Iversen and Maurizio Muraro Sparkle in San Francisco Opera “Barber of Seville” – November 14, 2013, and also,

Countdown to the Britten Centennial: Conductor James Conlon, Director Paul Curran in Reverential Mounting of Britten’s “Albert Herring” – Los Angeles Opera, February 25, 2012, and also,

An “Idomeneo” Surprise in San Francisco – Daniela Mack’s Princely Idamante – October 26, 2008.

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