Beautiful stage pictures
Problematic portrayal of women and repeated use of g*psy slur inherent in piece
In My Pockets
I had seen Opera Philadelphia’s copious advertising of Carmen, notably the animated looping ad that featured a pop-art-style Carmen being viciously stabbed, which I had a strong negative reaction to. (The company appears to have replaced this video with one that omits the stabbing.)
Every designer did a fantastic job of meeting and exceeding the challenges of opera– a large stage, many humans on that stage, and several very different settings.
Sets by Gary McCann were visually stunning and created interesting playing spaces as well as creating a painterly stage picture. The large graphic billboards were Gatsby-esque, signaling important thematic elements (and allowing a really fun moment in which Carmen rips part of an advertisement. It was audibly fabric, and not paper, which was slightly frustrating, but didn’t ruin the effect).
Paul Hackenmueller (lights) kept the story going visually and helped the eye more easily find the important characters in busy crowd scenes.
Costumes did justice to the period, the military characters and the women. Carmen was, predictably, in red throughout. I found her Act II bodycon style dress a little out of pace with the 50’s voluminous skirts shown in the rest of the show, but costuming was otherwise seamless.
Fights by J Alex Cordaro included a technically successful knife fight in Act III, but the story could have been better told with knives that weren’t so obviously plastic.
Choreography by Seth Hoff was elegantly performed but felt too separated from the rest of the action in most scenes.
After experiencing Opera Philadephia’s violent facebook ads, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about the production. I went into it knowing that this is part of the cannon, a well known story about a “devil woman” who in the end is brutally murdered, and ostensibly deserves it.
Having seen the production, I realize that there are few more layers to the story, most notably the fact that Carmen is a Romani woman. She’s also a great example of the stereotype that comes with the slur g*psy (which is the word that’s used throughout the show.) She’s a liar and cheat, “fiery” and promiscuous.
The show also banks on the exoticisation of Hispanic culture. The setting for this production is vaguely described in promotional materials as ‘a fictional blend of Spain, Miami, and Cuba.’ You’ve got toreadors dancing with castanets, and creative reference to traditional Flamenco clothing.
Carmen is played by Daniela Mack, a fantastic performer who is Argentinian. On one level it’s a pleasant surprise that the actor is actually roughly from the part of the world the piece is set in, but her casting also brings up the show’s problematic treatment of Romani people.
Mack has called Carmen “a woman out of time and definitely what I would consider a feminist” (link). I really, really wanted Mack to be right. I’ll admit I was a little surprised to find myself seeing moments in her story that I would call empowering, thanks to intentional choice by the company. Carmen was often allowed be strong and compelling, to have a palpable kind of power, maybe more than Bizet originally allowed. But her power is almost exclusively exerted through her sexuality. And what does power mean when you have to die in the end anyway, stabbed by a jealous lover who the audience is certainly meant to sympathize with?
But this is opera, right? There’s a reason why it’s considered so inaccessible and outmoded. We know well from the straight theatrical world that attempting to hold classics accountable is a difficult process. So should we stop doing them altogether? Do we attempt to improve or (some would say) sanitize them? Do we keep producing them more or less as they were written, and hope to gloss over the rough spots, maybe making some creative choices to attempt to lessen the blow?
This production has Don Jose kill himself after murdering Carmen– not a traditional choice (usually he kills her and then sings mournfully over her corpse). But in a recent reimagining of the show produced in Florence, Carmen kills Don Jose instead– a pointed comment on violence against women. Change is possible. I wish Opera Philadelphia’s commitment to representation were as thoughtful and impressive as their design choices.