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Carmen is the kind of opera that makes opera criticism a somewhat pointless exercise. Is it good? Bad? Does it matter? Audiences will come to see it regardless; the Washington National Opera knows this, that’s why they chose it to open their 60th season. It’s what pays for the rest of a company’s season, which for the WNO this year will skew to the obscure (Philip Glass’s Appomattox, Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars) or expensive (Wagner’s entire Ring cycle, long awaited here).
And that’s OK. Sometimes you need something that people actually like, or at least are pretty certain they will like. Something that doesn’t try too hard, gives you what you came for, sends you home happy, which you’ll enjoy in the moment and then forget about the next day. This production, a loaner from Canadian Opera Company in its D.C. debut, does exactly what it’s supposed to, no more but no less.
It isn’t good, and it isn’t bad. It’s somewhere in between, which is to say, good enough. It’s not a particularly daring production, by design: The only modest innovation is a pair of flamenco dancers who put on a fun show during set changes. The set designs (a mountain camp, a bullring grandstand) are pretty standard. Georges Bizet’s music is immediately recognizable (in the best Orlando boy band tradition, he repeats themes from the main arias throughout so you can’t get them out of your head), so it doesn’t really matter that Evan Rogister conducts it a little too fast, or the orchestra isn’t always balanced, because you’ll hear that Toreador melody so many damn times you’ll be humming along to it whether you like it or not.
What would make any Carmen a truly great Carmen would be, of course, a great Carmen—that is, a great mezzo in the title role. This production doesn’t quite have that (at least the one I saw; the production has a rotating cast and this review is for the one on Saturday). That’s not to say French mezzo Clémentine Margaine isn’t a good singer; she is, with a pretty, stout voice and a nice vocal range. She’s just not so convincing as Carmen, despite it being a role Margaine does frequently: She comes across as more bossy than sexy, with an intonation that’s more declarative than seductive.
Perhaps an unsexy Carmen would be appropriate for some kind of subversive reinterpretation of Bizet’s exercise in leering exoticism; I’m not the first to point out how fucked up it is that Carmen is the opera that made the femme fatale trope famous, given that the actual fatale character in it is a man and the titular femme is his victim. Carmen really should be shorthand for femicide, not “hot-blooded Gypsy women dancing on tables.” But no, this production is pretty loyal to Bizet’s original, down to the disgusting implication that Carmen sort of had it coming to her.
The other weak spot is Escamillo, the bullfighter who steals Carmen’s heart, which sends her ex-boyfriend on his murderous path. Saturday’s Escamillo, baritone Michael Todd Simpson, lacked in projection and got swallowed up by the orchestra and chorus on a few occasions. Bryan Hymel, as Carmen’s stalker ex, Don José, is better; he has a clear, brassy though slightly nasally tenor. A standout is soprano Janai Brugger as Micaela, who has an unrequited crush on José; Brugger is sparkling, draws rich colors, and is naturally sympathetic—though it’s a bad sign for any Carmen that the most exciting role is someone not named Carmen.
But again, none of this really matters. If WNO played it safe, it’s because Carmen is a gateway opera. And like other gateways of the narcotic variety, it doesn’t have to be amazing, just good enough to get you interested, in hopes that you’ll come back and next time they can sell you something more potent, be it Wagner or heroin. There may not be much to draw newbies back to the Kennedy Center Opera House this season, however, unless they are history buffs (Appomattox) or gluttons for punishment (Ring). But as a one off, it makes for a perfectly nice, if not particularly memorable, night at the opera.
2700 F St. NW. $25–$350. In French with English surtitles.