Arts and Culture

Carmen is a very fast woman. She moves right along in life — and love. And that’s exactly the way soprano Elise Quagliata sings the title role of “Carmen” as Kentucky Opera presents what is probably the world’s favorite opera in performances Friday and Sunday at the Brown Theatre.

Carmen, you see, is all about Carmen, and the rest tumble helplessly into her schemes and dreams. But everyone loves her.

“She’s the prominent figure, everyone knows who she is,” conductor Joseph Mechavich said. “Everyone loves her. And she’s eccentric. In our own lives we all know someone like Carmen — the woman who when she walks into a restaurant, people say, ‘Oh, there she is!’”

And it’s that kind of magnetic electricity Mechavich says zings though this newest Kentucky Opera version.

“‘Carmen’ goes, it goes fast,” Mechavich said. And he’s not talking about the speed of his baton in the Brown Theatre pit. He’s talking about the tempo of the show.

“We’ve been very careful to keep the integrity of the story, but streamlining the piece so that the audience gets the thrust, this javelin of a story.”

Bill Brymer/Kentucky Opera

Once proud Don José, sung by tenor Dominic Armstrong, is reduced to sobs by Carmen (Elise Quagliata).

One of the things Mechavich and director Dan Wallace Miller have done is trim the opera to a leaner version — more in the style they believe Bizet penned it. Georges Bizet died 1875 in France at the age of 36, just three months after premiering what would be his greatest work. Subsequently, arrangers changed the original spoken dialog to broader “recitatives” — setting the words to be sung with a kind of musical accompaniment. That’s one of the ways the opera became lengthened in minutes and style.

Of course that was the 19th century. Opera was the biggest show in European musical life, and audiences expected an event that would go on and on. The “arranged” version of “Carmen” could drag out to three and four hours. Mechavich says people got so they would duck out for a drink and slip back into the theater to hear the hit tunes.

But that’s not a viable style for today. Twenty-first century audiences expect the story to move.

“We’re informed by television, right?” Mechavich said. “So we’ve got to pick up the pace of the storytelling, yet be absolutely true to what Bizet and his lyricists wanted in the original production. Our production is a streamlined version that’s amazing.”

Somebody Goin’ To Hurt Somebody

But the story … that never changes.

Carmen — the cigarette factory girl by day, and a ringleader in a band of gypsy smugglers by night — is still at center stage.

When she lifts a look the way of soldier Don José, and presents him with a flower, poor Don José is hooked. Later, when Carmen is about to be locked up, Don José is so spellbound he lets her escape, setting tragic events in motion.

The pair is in love. He goes AWOL from the army to be with her, and hides out with the gang in the Spanish mountains. The pretty peasant girl Micaëla arrives from Don José’s home town, hoping to wed Don José — and she would be a better choice. But Don José only has eyes for Carmen.

Bill Brymer/Kentucky Opera

Baritone Richard Ollarsaba stands tall as the gallant toreador Escamillo.

Then dashing toreador Escamillo steps boldly into the picture: “Je suis Escamillo!” I am Escamillo!

And Escamillo is certainly bigger than life. He’s the hero bullfighter dressed snappily in a pinstriped suit. Tall and bold. The matador who flirts with death in the ring, and is rewarded at night.

Perhaps a more exciting conquest for Carmen?

As you fight, a dark eye is watching,

And love is waiting

Audiences Were Shocked

Audiences of the time found the story of “Carmen” lurid and immoral — but couldn’t take their eyes off it. A century and a half later, show-goers remain entranced by Carmen’s beauty and beguiling ways that leave all around her helpless.

There’s also plenty for the ears. Bizet’s score is full of Spanish rhythms and longing love songs, with an ominous little melody we hear at the very beginning that keeps popping up as a note of caution amid the gaiety.

“Carmen’s” most fervent fans know all the opera’s songs, of course. Some in the audience this weekend will have traveled from nearby cities to see the opera. But two tunes from “Carmen” are nearly universally familiar: the upbeat “March of the Toreadors,” and Carmen’s hypnotically seductive “Habanera.”

Bill Brymer/Kentucky Opera

Elise Quagliato, as Carmen, singing and dancing the Cuban-rhythm “Habanero.”

A previous Kentucky Opera staging of “Carmen” in 2012 set the tale in the Old World Spanish seaport of Cadiz. But this one is set in mid-20th century, with soldiers clad in a vaguely fascista style, and women in 1940’s hairstyles. But the smugglers are still smugglers, still poor, not even slightly aware of politics.

This is decidedly not the grand opera of royal courts and castles, of rich and richly costumed characters. “Carmen” is a bare bones drama of people at the bottom class of society. The few splashes of color stand out against the mundane: in Escamillo’s dashingly tailored suit, and Carmen’s coral … well, we won’t give that away.

But that’s just costumes and sets. What Kentucky Opera is counting on to make the thing go is the “javelin thrust” of the story and the singing of the songs. In the orchestra pit under Mechavich’s baton are players from the Louisville Orchestra, with a sound that resonates in the old world Brown Theatre.

Singing And Acting

In the old days, the opera’s premier stars often just took a spot on stage and belted out the numbers. Now, what everyone seems to be trying for is acting, to go with the singing — beginning with Elise Quagliata, as Carmen.

“Not only does Elise have the vocal chops, but she’s an incredible actress — and that’s what we need in telling Carmen,” Mechavich said. “We wanted her to empower the character.”

The conductor also notes the acting of tenor Dominic Armstrong, as Don José. Taking the other leading roles are baritone Richard Ollarsaba as Escamillo, and popular Louisville soprano Emily Albrink, as Micaëla. The opera is sung in French, with English subtitles projected.

“Dominic auditioned for us in New York, and is a consummate actor,” says Mechavich. “Both Barbara (Kentucky Opera general director Barbara Lynne Jamison) and I are committed to that combination of singing and acting on stage.”

But it is a tough trick of the opera stage, pairing singing and acting. When Carmen seduces Don José into deserting the army for a life of “freedom” with the gypsy smugglers she cunningly turns from soothing to stormy to get what she wants. Don José knows he is spiraling into her spell. “You are the devil,” he says. Carmen coos, “Yes I am.”

Of course, Don José does not wish to be rescued from love. But one fears Carmen may be deeply in love for only a while.

And that cannot end well.

The Kentucky Opera will perform “Carmen” on Friday, September 20 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, September 22 at 2:00 p.m. at the Brown Theatre. The opera is sung in French with English captions. For tickets or more information, click here.