At Age Almost 200, Carmen Remains Current

At Age Almost 200, Carmen Remains Current

Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” has been performed thousands of times since it was introduced to the public in 1875 but anyone watching Madison Opera’s performances this weekend will see it as if it were a new production.

Normally, when one says something like that, what follows would be a discussion of a futuristic set, contemporary costuming or, even, a change in the music.

Not so this time. The sets and costumes are appropriate to the 1820 scene in which the gypsy Carmen and her maladroit lover, Don Jose, are featured. The music is totally familiar – though the uniform quality of the singing is far above average.

Here’s what’s different: The tone is dark and somewhat menacing.

The story begins outside a cigarette factory, where a group of soldiers waits for women workers to take their break and flirt with them. Carmen is one of those women

The women are typically risque and the soldiers kind of goofy. In the Madison Opera production, the men are somewhat rough and the women project a sense of weariness.

One of Jose’s childhood friends, a woman named Micaela, shows up with a message from Jose’s mother. He promises to marry Micaela but soon falls prey to Carmen’s charms.

Jose, however, quickly changes from Dudley Dooright to an obsessive, fearful lover who, while promising love to Carmen, also becomes physically abusive.

Carmen then falls for a bullfighter, Esaomillo, who is typically a dashing romantic figure. This Escamillo is more a preening, seemingly tubby show-off, kind of a Donald Trump in tight pants.

So, here’s the question: Did the director, E. Loren Meeker stage the opera to highlight contemporary discussions about sexual harassment and male privilege? Or does our contemporary emphasis on harassment and privilege change the way we view this familiar opera?

One of the great things about classical art, I think, is that an opera first performed in 1875, almost 200 years ago, can remain compelling in an entirely different time and culture.

Carmen’s role is sung byAleks Romano. Sean Panikkar, who sang in Madison’s 2014 Opera in the Park, sings Don Jose and Corey Crider, who performed in the opera’s “Sweeney Todd,” sings Escamillo.

The performance itself is excellent. John DeMain’s Madison Symphony Orchestra fills the Overture Center with sound but doesn’t overwhelm the singers. The chorus sounds as good as it has ever been. It’s tempting to call some of the soloists extraordinary – but the voices of the fairly large cast seem so well matched that the designation seems unmoored. Everyone can’t be “extraordinary.”

One final note: The women I heard speaking during intermission agreed that Panikkar is a hunk.

Carmen will be performed again Sunday at 2:30 p.m.