Late last year, Lincoln Center presented a series of Nazi-era German films—musicals, tear-jerkers, romantic comedies. Among the reels of Aryan goddesses on horseback and lovesick aviators sacrificing romance for their duty to the fatherland was a 1934 movie called The Prodigal Son. It’s essentially a morality tale: An alpine athlete is lured from his simple village to seek fame and fortune in New York, finds himself abandoned by his financier buddies to the decadence and bread lines of the Big Apple, and saves his soul by returning to the mountains and marrying his childhood sweetheart. The Prodigal Son proved a perfect vehicle for the National Socialist propaganda machine without resorting to a single waving swastika.

In its first professional American staging in 81 years, Washington Opera’s Tiefland plays like The Prodigal Son: The Musical. (Indeed, Eugen d’Albert’s 1903 opera was reputed to be one of the Führer‘s favorites.) It’s practically the same story, this time with mountain shepherd Pedro lured to a big city in the lowlands (tiefland) by mill-owner Sebastiano. The idea is to have Pedro marry Sebastiano’s mistress Marta, putting a stop to local gossip and allowing the landowner to marry into money and pay off some staggering debts. Sebastiano has no intention of giving Marta up, but a town-and-country romance develops when Pedro learns of her victimization at Sebastiano’s hands and she, in turn, finds Pedro innocent of involvement in the plot. Invoking the night he killed a wolf that threatened his flock, Pedro slays Sebastiano and whisks Marta from her corrupt surroundings back to the purity of the mountains.

As the characters’ names suggest, the setting is Spain, not Germany, and the Alps are traded for the Pyrenees. Much has been made of the work’s Spanish flavor, and undoubtedly there is evocative use made of Spanish rhythm and melody in the score. There are enough parallels with the folk-culture detail and crimes of passion in Bizet’s famous opera to warrant Tiefland‘s nickname, “The German Carmen.” But the piece is something of an emotional steamroller, its stentorian power far removed from Bizet’s colorfully Gallic take on Spanish themes. The murder of Sebastiano plays not as the last desperate act of a man broken by jealousy, but as a sacrament, a rite of passage for a rural Übermensch. For all d’Albert’s pretense with regard to putting real life on the stage, the confrontations in Tiefland conjure a mythic power along the lines of Wagner’s Die Walküre or the final scenes of Strauss’ Elektra.

Strauss crops up in d’Albert’s score as well, in its richly upholstered sound and its quirky orchestral commentary on character dialogue. What makes Tiefland really unique, though, is its synthesis of German romanticism and Italian verismo—reminiscent not so much of Puccini or Mascagni as of Zandonai, with his lush, free-form melodies and ever-shifting washes of color. Under Washington Opera Music Director Heinz Fricke, d’Albert’s music glows, and the Opera House Orchestra sounds especially rich and well-disciplined. Fricke really knows his way around this score: He keeps the structure and line of the music clear through every idiosyncratic turn and points up the arresting details, like Sebastiano’s staccato brass figure, the clucking winds underscoring the town gossips, or the threatening wolf motif in the trumpets. The ascent to the mountain at the end of the opera has true cathartic power.

That finale brings a design coup as well, as the town’s oppressive mill (along with a phalanx of townspeople) disappears, transporting the lovers to a dizzying precipice for their exultant embrace. Prior to this, we are offered extended views of both mill and mountaintop, and as with so many of Zack Brown’s sets, the genius is in the details. Never one for pushing the envelope of design innovation, Brown seems happiest creating the sort of painted-drop “realism” popular a century ago and favored by traditionalists ever since. “It looks like a painting come to life,” said the woman seated next to me, and indeed it does, the opening suggesting Caspar David Friedrich rendered in Crayolas. Even more, the set looks like a colorized version of all those Luis Trenker/Leni Riefenstahl mountain-climbing epics from the silent-film days (a style Riefenstahl recreated in her 1939 film of Tiefland, notorious for the cast of Gypsies allegedly “borrowed” from neighboring concentration camps). Beautifully lit by Joan Sullivan, the stage is a Weimar-era fantasy of luminous vistas and glowering shadows.

The posturing and melodrama of those old mountain flicks comes through all too clearly in Roman Terleckyj’s stand-and-sing direction. In fairness to Terleckyj, with such a difficult, heavily orchestrated score (not to mention one that’s new to everyone’s repertoire) a certain degree of conductor-fixation is inevitable; and for all the posing and staring and singing duets over their shoulders, the cast does seem connected to the high-stakes emotionalism of the piece. Rudolf Lothar’s libretto is unfortunately of little help: Archetypal struggles notwithstanding, the libretto’s strong suit is not the psychological complexity found in the operas of d’Albert’s contemporary, Janácek. At the heart of the problem is the pairing of Pedro and the rural elder Tommaso, who come off like Dumb and Dumber without the laughs. Waiting for these two to get wise to what’s going on is tedious indeed, and when the truth finally does register, it’s revealed through ambiguous half-comments and evasive replies.

With all they have to work against, the cast acquits itself rather well. Washington Opera continues to put together vocally strong ensembles, and in this case it’s the lower voices that most impress. Baritones Richard Paul Fink and Dale Travis turn Sebastiano and the mill-manager Moruccio into real showpiece roles with their powerful, mahogany-toned voices, and Gabor Andrasy lends Tommaso a grim, authoritative weight, countering through quiet dignity the character’s exasperating opaqueness. If the romantic leads bring reservations—Carol Yahr’s powerhouse soprano turns squally at some of the bigger moments, and James O’Neal tends to pump out heldentenor sound at the expense of expressive variety—they sing with a Wagnerian amplitude and generosity of tone that rarely gets an airing at Washington Opera.

Performing Tiefland and Carmen in revolving rep is a clever idea, less for their few similarities than for their myriad contrasts. On the surface, each opera follows the fate of a strong-willed woman caught between a controlling bully and would-be savior. But in Carmen, Don José, the innocent country boy, loses himself in obsessive passion and becomes the bully. Instead of killing his rival to liberate himself, he kills the object of his love and condemns himself. It’s interesting that Tiefland‘s slaughtered wolf finds resonance in Carmen‘s bullfighting theme, though it’s Carmen herself who becomes the sacrificial animal. Of course, Bizet gives us a second triangle to complicate things, so while Carmen struggles between old boyfriend Don José and new bullfighter-lover Escamillo, José juggles his Carmen-fever with allegiance to hometown sweetheart Micaela.

Their relationships provide something of a litmus test for every generation that produces Carmen: Who wins our sympathies and who’s to blame for what happens? Bizet’s affection for his title character is clear throughout the score, but the libretto is one of those good girl/bad girl affairs, and it’s obvious right from the start. Micaela’s first significant act is to give José a kiss from his ailing mother. Carmen has barely walked onstage before she’s throwing herself at José, and within minutes she’s been arrested for knifing a co-worker at the cigarette factory. That’s José’s choice: Micaela, who stands for Christian faith, chasteness, and the promise of a simple domestic life; or Carmen, who arrives with a sexual history, some shady associates, and a rap sheet as long as her nails. She’s mistrusted for her independence and “gypsy blood,” and she works José shamelessly until he loses that respect-for-authority thing and trades in his soldier’s life for a life of crime.

Just putting a character like Carmen onstage was enough to turn Victorian censors apoplectic, and for years into this century the opera was most often seen as a cautionary tale of what can happen when good men are lured to their destruction by sexually depraved sirens—the old “independent woman equals godless monster” formula. (For all its brute force, Tiefland‘s final scene is more forward-thinking in rewarding its long-suffering heroine rather than punishing her for her circumstances and fighting spirit.) Nowadays, of course, the sight of cigarette-smoking factory girls sends more of a chuckle than a shock wave through an audience, just as Micaela’s once admirable purity now seems improbably prim. More significantly, Carmen and Don José have switched places somewhat; her defiance of the male hierarchy takes on a certain cachet, while his jealous stalking and murder of her loses the dimension of tragic heroism it once had. As with The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew, history and psychology have brought a reassessment of Carmen.

Director Ann-Margret Pettersson looks for the emotional truth in these characters and comes up with a believable blend of traditional and revisionist thought. In fact, excepting some stilted compositions and tentative stage combat, this is one of the best-directed Carmens I’ve seen. Naturally acted down to the last chorister, its central conflicts play themselves out free of grandstanding or stock gesturing. The closest parallel might be with Peter Brook’s brilliant, decade-old rethinking of the piece, La Tragedie de Carmen, which cut the three-hour work down to 90 minutes, retooled it for six singers and an orchestra of 12, and, freed of its conventional ensembles and entr’actes, stripped the action down to its white-hot core. Pettersson’s success is in keeping the dramatic throughline clear and building tension inexorably within the constraints of the grand-opera original.

She is fortunate in her principal singers. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more dramatically compelling, physically well-matched and, with one exception, vocally alluring quartet than this one. The exception is the Don José of Neil Rosenshein. What happened to this guy’s voice? One of America’s most promising tenors several seasons back, he has retained only his thrilling high notes. The rest of the voice is disfigured by a widened vibrato that he struggles with mightily in an effort to keep his tone focused. But focus is just what his acting has in spades. This José is neither saint nor psychotic, but a child-man willingly led and obsessively attached, lacking the life-experience to deal with a sudden hormonal overload. There’s a single-mindedness about his performance that inspires compassion and discomfort in equal measure, and his physical scuffles with Carmen are truly menacing.

Denyce Graves, that D.C. girl-made-good, has become a Carmen of choice on the international circuit, and her performance here proves why. Possessing a mezzo-soprano of extraordinary richness and technique for days, she sings the role impeccably. What really sets her apart, though, is the erotic charge she builds with her feline stillness, her hypnotic gazes, the subtle flexings and crossings of her willowy legs. No cackling laughter. No histrionics. Her allure is in her repose—by revealing little, she draws the audience in for a closer look.

No less smoldering a presence, but at the other end of the interpretive map, is Gregg Baker’s Escamillo, pitched as a preening cross between Billy Dee Williams and Tom Jones. All matador flourishes and self-absorbed posturing, he sends up Latin-lover clichés by playing them straight. He’s a meta-Escamillo, all testosterone and proud of it, and like any Vegas showman worth his salt, he sent more than a few society ladies into the lobby fanning themselves on opening night. It also doesn’t hurt that he sings the role magnificently, his weighty baritone encompassing the part’s wide range with ease.

That any Micaela could cut through all this NC-17 panting and sweating is a feat. That bright-voiced Mary Mills (familiar here from her dazzling The Cunning Little Vixen) can make something memorable out of her is remarkable. Not a yearning, complex character as some have made her, she is a vision of doe-eyed innocence, the kind of endearing Pollyanna we root for while shaking our heads at her naiveté. Additionally, the production’s supporting roles are cast from strength, and conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg’s work with the orchestra is as lucid as ever.

Lennart Mörk’s sets and costumes are an odd amalgam of the abstract and the numbingly traditional. Painterly in a more imaginative way than Brown’s turn-of-the-century Tiefland, each act offers sweeping drops streaked with saturated color. These are inexplicably set against some butt-ugly, road-show set pieces—painted trees, styrofoam rocks, cardboard mountains—that undercut the beauty of the drops and lack the specificity of style that might suggest a postmodern sensibility at work. The designs really work their magic when Mörk’s color sense is given freest rein. Who will forget Graves in Act I, for instance, slinking barefoot around the maize and olive-drab set, holding her red pumps aloft like a warning flag? Or the blood-red bullfighting arena of the final scene, the handful of yellow parasols in the crowd enough to suggest a sunny Madrid afternoon, and the battered iron railings foreshadowing the brutality of Carmen’s imminent slaughter? At their best, the designs beguile the eye and offer telling visual metaphors to support one of the season’s strongest productions.

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