Femme fatale or feminist before her time? The titular heroine of Bizet’s Carmen once scandalised 19th-century audiences with her overt sexuality, which she flaunts as brashly as her lurid scarlet skirts. Today, we’re more likely to toast her as liberated wild child – a woman who would rather die than let herself be caged by men’s wills. It’s a timeless drama that continually unfolds new insights, and the Singapore Lyric Opera’s (SLO) latest staging of Carmen brings out these depths in superb style.
The iconic plot of Carmen scarcely needs rehashing – it’s the template for a thousand tragic love triangles we’ve seen hence. The free-spirited gypsy Carmen seduces the soldier Don José, who abandons his military post and his sweetheart Micaela to follow her. When she later falls in love with the sexier, ultra-macho toreador Escamillo (and who wouldn’t?), Don José kills her in jealous fury.
This is the SLO’s fourth revival of Carmen, though its first with a majority Singaporean cast. Stage Director Nancy Yuen brings to life an old-world Spain that blazes with colour and energy. The sultry flamenco dancers that open Acts II and IV are a visual treat, as are the sassy flock of cigarette girls in the chorus. The set offers a brilliant juxtaposition to this vibrant life: an imposing stone gateway and ornate fences frame Act I, giving way to a grainy, decaying wasteland by Act IV. We have the sense of implacable death in the shadows, waiting to cut down those who dance so defiantly in celebration of life. It’s a sublime setting for Carmen’s tragic fate.
There are many ways to play Carmen, opera’s seductress par excellence. Some have played her as predatory man-eater; others as merely flighty. Taiwanese mezzo-soprano Jo-Pei Weng introduces us to a Carmen who is more spirited than sensual, reeling us in with a vitality by turns cheeky and fiery. Her Habanera is light with notes of irony and mischief, set off by an unusual costume choice – a blue-and-white dress, rather than the conventional siren-red one. These are the virginal colours which typically clad ‘good girl’ Micaela – cleverly subverting the simple virgin-whore dichotomy which the two women seem to fit.
Another seduction aria which Weng pulls off magnificently is Près des remparts de Séville. Her lilt swings tantalisingly between provocative and beseeching, accompanied by her sinuous dance with the very rope with which Don José, her arresting officer, has bound her. It’s a scene you can’t pull your eyes from – not only because of Carmen’s charms, but because it shows us, all too clearly, the fatal irony that binds her. Canny temptress that she is, her wiles help her escape the law only to entangle her in yet another set of chains – Don José’s possessiveness.
Singaporean tenor Jonathan Charles Tay dishes up a heavy dose of angst as the jilted Don José. Tay never convincingly sinks into the role of infatuated lover, but this sharpens the disturbing intensity of his inner turmoil, and his agonised vibrato as he pleads-threatens Carmen (C’est toi! C’est moi!) thrills the ear.
Instead, it is the cocky heartthrob Escamillo, played by baritone powerhouse Martin Ng, whose chemistry with Carmen truly sizzles. With strong rugged eyebrows and a delicious swagger, Ng’s Escamillo easily dominates the stage. He delivers the Toreador Song in a suitably brawny timbre, while finding softer tones to harmonise poignantly with Weng in their Act IV love duet (Si tu m’aimes, Carmen). It’s the last tender moment of the opera, before the terrible violence of her confrontation with Don José.
“Carmen will never yield! Free she was born and free she will die!” is Carmen’s swan song, even as Don José threatens her at knifepoint. It’s a rallying cry that can’t fail to thrill our modern souls – men and women alike – with the desire to live and love freely. As the SLO’s marvellous production proves, Carmen may be a classic restaged time and again, but – like the lady herself – it can never quite be mastered, and is always worth rethinking.
Bizet’s Carmen ran from 30 Aug to 1 Sep 2019 at Esplanade Theatre.