"Carmen" is one of the best known, if not the best known, of all operas. It is so well known that it is even possible to be familiar with the story and not the opera; the gypsy seductress has been the subject of movies from the silent era to the present, movies in which she has been everything from vamp to lesbian. Bizet's tunes, too, are so famous that it is also easy to know the music and not the opera; even Bart and Homer Simpson have done their parody of the "Toreador Song."
Yet Tuesday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where L.A. Opera opened its 13th season with a new production of "Carmen," the overture was interrupted at the end of the first section with applause. That was more a good thing than a bad. It was good because those who clapped were suddenly surprised when the music continued. There are some tricks in this overture, in the way that it suddenly breaks off the regular patterns, and the applause was a reminder that this is not music to take for granted, to be lulled into an operatic alpha state by familiarity.
Indeed, "Carmen" is particularly ripe for new ideas, and new productions always come with the hope and promise of new interpretations. The role of Carmen is one that no two singers, no two actresses, play alike. And L.A. Opera also boasts a new Carmen, though one already justly famous for her singing of it.
Jennifer Larmore has had a long public apprenticeship as Carmen. She has tried out the persona almost as if it were a new wardrobe, getting comfortable with it gradually. She recorded the opera a couple of years ago. Last summer she sang it in public for the first time in concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
In every case the promise of a captivating Carmen was there. The voice, a slightly dusky, ideally flexible mezzo-soprano with lightning-quick responses, couldn't suit Carmen better. She is also an earnest actress who tries hard to be liked, which is a help in the light comedy in which she specializes. In "Carmen," it is an obstacle.
Larmore's is an insistent Carmen. She forces herself on Don Jose (and the audience); she is easily hurt if rebuffed; she is spoiled. She is also all-American. The tension between a voice that wrapped itself around the music so fluently and an overeager body language suitable for neither languid nor insouciant seduction proved a continual distraction. Her costumes--this gypsy goes to work at the cigarette factory in a Spanish riding hat and to the bullfight bedecked like Spanish royalty--were no help.
Placido Domingo, her Don Jose, also appeared at his entrance to have wandered into the wrong opera. The production, originally made for Washington Opera two years ago by Swedish director Ann-Margret Pettersson, updates the opera to fascist Spain (a conceit so often done with this opera that it is practically convention). And perhaps Domingo, who was born in Madrid in 1941, had good reason for looking so stiffly uncomfortable in fascist uniform. Given his frenetic lifestyle, he certainly had good reason for looking haggard.
And yet Domingo had only to sing to shed years and fatigue. Tuesday he sounded as robust as ever. At the end of his "Flower Song," Domingo struggled to scale down to pianissimo, but that moment of vocal frailty also served to expose Don Jose's vulnerability. It is part of Domingo's greatness that he now employs strengths and weaknesses to powerful dramatic effect in a magnificently complex character study.
His not fitting in at the beginning also worked. Beefy, angry, tired-looking yet powerful, Domingo was anything but the usual ardent Don Jose. He was rather a study of ardor gone wrong. One sensed he didn't belong to this society. One sensed the internal conflicts between good (his devotion to his mother) and bad (Carmen as exotic forbidden fruit) driving him mad. This was one occasion when it was easy to believe that Don Jose could kill.
Next to Domingo's cataclysmic Don Jose, Richard Bernstein's Escamillo and Carla Maria Izzo's Micaela were cardboard. But young, sparklingly well-sung cardboard. Izzo is a new soprano with terrific promise, a big voice, focused like a laser, that commands immediate notice. She's still learning the stage, though.
The production was not designed to carry these young singers. It looks very nice, with Lennart Mork's sets swathed in color, and with Alan Burrett's smoky lights. But Pettersson's direction seemed most intent on creating tableaux, which she did very well. Crowd scenes were realistic and effective. The soloists, though, seemed left to their own devices. That's fine for Domingo, but not the rest. Still, musical unity was achieved, and in that the smooth pacing of conductor Bertrand de Billy was a great help.
Then, leaving the theater, the audience got disco--the theme of the opening-night gala was Studio 54 in Seville. Why, in this town with its own history of "Carmen" on film and with its obsession with the femme fatale and with its assimilative culture, do the best ideas have to be for the parties?
* "Carmen" continues Friday, Sept. 13, 16, 22 and 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 19 at 2 p.m., with Jacque Trussel in the role of Don Jose on Sept. 16, 19 and 25, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. $25-$137. (213) 365-3500, http://www.laopera.org.
* 'CARMEN' PREMIERE PARTY: The opera may be a 19th century tragedy, but the eclectic after-party was set firmly in the 1970s. E1