In spite of rocky historical reimagining, Minnesota Opera’s ‘Carmen’ delivers thrills

Photo by Michal Daniel
Stage director Michael Cavanagh set this new ‘Carmen’ production in Seville in the mid-1970s.

Bizet’s “Carmen” is one of the world’s most popular operas, and no wonder. From the first pants-on-fire notes of the overture, it’s full of hummable gems. Even if you don’t know the opera, you’ve almost certainly heard some of the tunes: the ominous fate theme, the steamy “Habanera,” the “Toreador” song.

There isn’t a boring note anywhere, the story is full of drama, and it’s not too highbrow. In fact, it’s more soap than opera, complete with seduction, rejection, and murder. Bonus: it’s sung in French.

Over the weekend, the Minnesota Opera began a much-anticipated run of nine “Carmen” performances, with record-breaking ticket sales before the first curtain rose. Opening night was musically satisfying and often thrilling. With Michael Christie conducting, the orchestra and chorus sounded wonderful.

The principal roles – Carmen, Micaëla, Don José and Escamillo – are being shared by two casts; we saw the first, with Nora Sourouzian, Marita Sølberg, Rafael Davila and Kyle Ketelsen. (The second cast features Minnesota Opera resident artist alum Victoria Vargas and rising stars Shannon Prickett, Cooper Nolan and Richard Ollarsaba.)

It takes real confidence to play the sensual, free-spirited Carmen and the strutting bullfighter Escamillo; Sourouzian and Ketelsen have it to spare, with voices up to the challenge. As Micaëla, the innocent peasant girl, Sølberg did some of the best singing of the night. (Siena Forest and Bergen Baker – Frasquita and Mercédès – were also strong; they’ll appear in every performance.) Davila’s voice is beautiful, but his acting as the besotted, then jilted, then rage-filled soldier Don José could have been better. (Then again, Don José is probably the opera’s most demanding acting role.)

Bizet set his opera in Seville around 1830. Stage director Michael Cavanagh set this new production in Seville in the mid-1970s, which meant Jessica Jahn’s costumes had to play along. That’s too bad. The 1970s were a time of sexual freedom, but the hair and clothes seem tacky now. Instead of ruffled skirts, bare shoulders and tight Toreador pants, we get espadrilles, blue jeans and floppy scarves. The audience was more colorfully dressed than the cast.

The setting also has unhappy side effects on the story. Removed from the exotic visual context we know, Carmen’s overtly sexual behavior seems bizarre. The fiery dance of the Gypsies during the tavern scene verges on silly; a man seated behind us actually laughed. Brought forward in time 200 years, when ideas about relationships have changed, Don José is just another abusive boyfriend. We expected some end-of-the-Franco-era edginess; except for a “Death to Franco” stencil on a wall, nothing stood out.

There is one spectacular moment, an entry by Escamillo we won’t describe so you, too, can be pleasantly surprised. But for much of this production, there’s a disconnect between what we hear and what we see.

That being said, this is Minnesota Opera’s first “Carmen” in ten years, and there’s nothing like live opera with a gutsy heroine, a gorgeous score, a bloody ending and a big, rowdy chorus in full voice. Tickets start at $25. Ends May 10.

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To the SPCO’s already stellar international line-up of artistic partners, add Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. His tenure won’t begin until the 2016-17 season, but he’ll perform a weekend of concerts with the orchestra next April.

Kuusisto has played with the SPCO several times; his most recent appearances here were with the Schubert Club in March. Like Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whose partnership with the SPCO was announced in January 2014, Kuusisto doesn’t always color within the lines.

At the Ordway Concert Hall in March, he played Bach with accordionist Dermot Dunne. Two nights later, he played a series of violin solos with a “visual soloist,” juggler Jay Gilligan. Other performances have included dance, improvisation, electronics, lights, food, film and a red dress with a huge skirt and hundreds of “pockets” where the audience sits. A champion of new music, he’s equally virtuosic in the standard repertoire.

SPCO president Bruce Coppock said in a statement, “Pekka Kuusisto is an amazingly poetic and imaginative musician. … He dares to explore new repertoire and new ways of presentation, but his music-making is always grounded in exquisite violin playing.”

Kuusisto said, “One might ask if there aren’t enough Finns in Minnesota already, but fortunately for me, the SPCO doesn’t think so.”

Here’s how to pronounce Kuusisto’s name. Don’t turn those two u’s into one.

And let’s not confuse Pekka Kuusisto with another Finnish violinist, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Pekka, a version of Peter, is a popular Finnish name for boys. 

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Meanwhile, the SPCO Chorale is no more.

In advance of its 20015-16 season announcement, Director of Operations Jason Piehl send a letter to all Chorale members saying, in part: “It is an extremely busy and exciting time for the organization, with the opening of the new Concert Hall at the Ordway, many new musicians and Artistic Partners coming on board and a plethora of new opportunities for touring, media and other projects on the horizon. As we look ahead to implementing a growing list of new initiatives, we find ourselves in the position of needing to make some difficult choices based on organizational capacity. To this end, we have come to the conclusion that we will no longer be able to operate the SPCO Chorale.”

Formed in 2008 for the SPCO’s 50th anniversary, with Dale Warland as artistic director, the Chorale typically performed a week or two of programs each year. Since the new Ordway Concert Hall has a choir loft (that also doubles as audience seating, with an interesting view out into the hall), we asked if this decision says anything about the SPCO’s future plans with choral music in general. We’re told it doesn’t, but we don’t yet know who will sing the Messiah this year. 

The picks

Today through Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute: Vermeer’s “Woman Reading a Letter.” The mysterious lady in blue is about to pack her pearls and head back to Amsterdam. On loan for MIA’s 100th Year celebration, this exquisite little masterpiece is on view – for free – through Sunday, May 3. Here’s our interview with curator Patrick Noon, who helped us to see it more clearly and love it even more.

Tonight (Wednesday, April 29) at the Riverview Theater: Lunafest. A touring fundraising festival of short films by, for and about women. Proceeds for the Minneapolis showing benefit the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute and the Breast Cancer Fund. 7 p.m. FMI, trailer and tickets ($25/$35).

Opens tonight at the History Center: The Rose Ensemble: “Singing for Freedom: The Antislavery Campaign of the Hutchinson Family Singers.” Part theater, part music, part history, this semi-staged, costumed production spotlights a family of pro-Emancipation, 19th-century traveling musicians who performed to interracial audiences (and also founded the city of Hutchinson, Minnesota). The program of antislavery music features guest artists Dan Chouinard, T. Mychael Rambo and Maria Jette and stage direction by Jeff Raz (Cirque du Soleil). In the 3M Auditorium. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10 students, $25 advance, $27 door). Through May 3.

Starts Thursday at the Ritz: “Lullaby.” Part of Theater Latté Da’s “New Musicals in the Making” series, a popular behind-the-scenes peek at workshopping, “Lullaby” tells of a widowed mother who takes guitar lessons so she can learn to play lullabies for her infant son, then forms an unlikely friendship. We’re already weepy. With Jonatha Brooke (“My Mother Has 4 Noses”), who co-wrote the music and lyrics, directs the music and plays a role. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($12).

Starts Friday: 2015 Cracked Walnut Literary Festival. An ambitious, delicious, more than month-long series of readings and (often) music. Events take place all over: at bookstores, coffee houses, a brewery, schools, galleries, a funeral home, the Lift Garage, the Mill City Museum, and a children’s hospital. Most are in the Twin Cities metro area, with one in Duluth. Friday’s launch reading is at Dow Art Gallery & Picture Framing, 2242 University Ave. West in St. Paul. Bring your own chair to this one. 7:30 p.m. FMI and series schedule.

The weekend

Saturday (May 2) is the First Annual Independent Bookstore Day. What started last year as California Bookstore Day has gone national.  Celebrate by visiting your favorite independent bookstores. Look for exclusive books, posters, broadsides and other fun literary-themed stuff. FMI. Here’s a map of participating bookstores. Enter your ZIP to find those closest to you.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/29/2015 - 09:57 am.

    Thrills

    Kind of hard for “Carmen” not to deliver thrills. As an opera, it’s what it specializes in.

  2. Submitted by Carl Voss on 04/29/2015 - 10:54 pm.

    error

    Esa-Pekka Salonen is a conductor and composer, not a violinist.

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