Who are the real victims in “Carmen,’’ that tragic, beloved, red-blooded French opera?
Since its first performance nearly 140 years ago, people continue to ask that question. The composer, Georges Bizet, and his creative collaborators never gave us a clear answer. Ambiguity, after all, makes for good theater.
Murdered in the final moments of the action, the sultry main character leaves us to ponder this: Is Carmen a manipulator of men, or do men manipulate her? Does her life unravel through crude forces she can’t control, or do her conquests symbolize moral decay on a grander scale?
Audiences can decide for themselves this weekend when the curtain rises on a new, $300,000 production by Opera Tampa at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Daniel Lipton, artistic director of the company, conducts.
“Carmen” is the story of a gypsy woman and the men she pretends to love, and it has divided public opinion since its premier in Paris in 1875. Carmen surrenders herself long enough for men to surrender themselves to her, and in the exchange of vulnerability, somebody pays a price. Some see her independent character as morally corrupt, a prostitute to be used and discarded. Others view her as a strong spirit who threatens male dominance by testing its weaknesses.
“I have always thought that Carmen is a feminist in a man’s world,’’ says Judy Lisi, president of the Straz Center and general director of Opera Tampa. “She’s without resources except for herself. So while it might be perceived that she manipulates men, at the end of the day, that’s her only power. Carmen believes in her independence and right to make her own choices — to the death.’’
Alessandra Volpe, the Italian-born mezzo-soprano who portrays Carmen in two performances this weekend, agrees.
“Carmen is not a victim,’’ she says. “She realizes from the beginning that she will die at the hands of (her lover) Don Jose, but she goes forward anyway. It’s because of her immense ability to love.’’
This duality is part of the opera’s appeal and a reason it remains at the core of the repertoire. It blends the raw with the delicate, sentiment with brutality, and redefines the traditional portrayal of love in the opera house. The last of Bizet’s six operas, “Carmen’’ explodes with vibrant, evocative music, and enough memorable tunes to have inspired the composer Pablo de Sarasate to write a “Carmen Fantasy’’ for violin and orchestra.
Few operas offer a comparable package of psychological story, brilliant orchestration and emotional impact, Lisi says. No wonder Opera Tampa has staged it three times since the company’s inception in 1996 — more than any other work.
“First and foremost, the music is beautiful, powerful, dynamic and exciting,’’ she says. “And the story is fascinating.’’
For Volpe singing the lead in “Carmen’’ doesn’t get much better.
“Being from the Mediterranean region, this is the absolute top role for me,’’ she says. “It’s my absolute favorite opera, and the most complete one for me personally.’’
Volpe will be joined on stage by John Pickle as the soldier Don Jose; Jason Howard as the bullfighter Escamillo; and Nathalie Paulin as the young girl, Micaela. Expect lots of parents in the audience to support the young local singers who make up the Patel Conservatory Children’s Opera Chorus and the Florida Boy Choirs. “Carmen” will be sung in French with English translations projected above the stage.