By Jan Jaben-Eilon
Even those who rarely, if ever, attend an opera, are familiar with the uplifting rhythmic melody of “Carmen’s" “Toreador Song,” among the most well known of all operatic arias. While the tune alone may bring audiences to the “Carmen” performance by the Atlanta Opera, it is the magnificent production and powerful, emotional performance of the actors that will keep them bound to their seats.
This four-act opera alternates musical numbers with dialogue to unfurl the story of the seductress gypsy Carmen who grabs the attention of a soldier, Don José, with the toss of a rose. Already in love with his childhood sweetheart, Don José abandons her and his commitment to the army for the temptress and her nomadic, lawless life. But after Carmen loses interest in him and announces her love for the striking toreador Escamillo, Don José refuses to lose her and instead, in his passion, kills her in a jealous rage.
Written by French composer Georges Bizet, with the libretto written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, “Carmen” was first performed at the Opera-Comique in Paris in 1875. The dynamic story of deceit, passion and the consequences of the decisions we make in life comes alive again at the majestic Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Cobb County.
The first act opens on a square in Seville where soldiers wait for the changing of the guard, and we are introduced to Micaëla, Don José’s love. Enchanting child actors enliven the street setting as they play dancing, singing, active urchins. Along with cigarette girls emerging from their factory jobs, we meet the provocative Carmen, after whom all the soldiers chase. But she is only interested in the disinterested Don José. The dynamic story unfolds as Carmen gets into a knife fight with another woman and is taken into custody by the soldiers. She convinces Don José to let her go, earning him time in a prison.
The second, shorter act has Carmen and her friends entertaining army officers at a nearby inn. Carmen excitedly learns of Don José's release from prison, distracting her from the dashing toreador Escamillo (introduced by the famous aria), who dazzles everyone else. Instead of being tempted by him, she awaits Don José and convinces him to abandon the army and seek the freedom of a gypsy life in the mountains.
That’s where the third act opens, around campfires in the darkened cold, with card readers portending Carmen’s death. Meanwhile, Carmen has become bored with Don José and sends him scornfully away. His young love, Micaëla, arrives to try to rescue him from Carmen. He refuses, especially once he realizes that the toreador Escamillo is in love with Carmen. Micaëla prevails, however, once she tells Don José that his mother is dying. The act ends as Escamillo invites everyone to his next bullfight in Seville.
The final act opens at the ceremonial and extravagant bullfight with Escamillo the center of the crowd’s attention. Don José waits outside for Carmen. Once he realizes she loves only Escamillo, in a jealous frenzy Don José stabs and kills her.
Energetic, sexy dancers in colorful costumes keep the story alive, while the image of prison, in contrast to the freedom of the gypsies, actually reminds us that sometimes we create our own prisons. The scenery is realistic, and although the singing and acting both are superb, there is nothing that tops the music. Acclaimed for its melody and harmony, the orchestration musically expresses the emotions of its characters.
Mezzo-soprano Maria José Montiel debuts with the Atlanta Opera as Carmen, with Mexican tenor Fernando de la Mora in the role of Don José. Also debuting with the Atlanta Opera is baritone Aleksey Bogdanov in the role of the toreador Escamillo. Melissa Shippen performs as Micaëla. Arthur Fagen conducts, while Jeffrey Marc Buchman directs.
The opera is sung in French with easily readable English supertitles projected above the stage. There will be four performances of "Carmen": Saturday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 18 at 3 p.m.
In the Jeff Roffman photos above, top, The Atlanta Opera Children's Chorus performs; bottom, Maria Jose Montiel as Carmen.
Jan Jaben-Eilon, a journalist, is a guest blogger for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. She was a founding staff writer for the "Atlanta Business Chronicle." Since then, she has been the international editor of "Advertising Age" magazine and has written for such publications at "The New York Times," "International Herald Tribune" "The Jerusalem Report," "Washington Journalism Review" and "Consumer Reports." Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.