Seattle Opera to perform ‘Carmen,’ an enduring classic

  • By Jackson Holtz Herald Writer
  • Friday, October 14, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

It’s time to be seduced.

Seattle Opera’s production of “Carmen,” George Bizet’s widely popular opera about a sexy gypsy, opens this weekend at McCaw Hall.

Considered the most popular opera ever written, the appeal is both aesthetic and technical.

Experts agree that “Carmen” endures because it’s extremely well composed.

“There’s not a wasted moment in this opera,” said Jim Schindler, a Woodinville High School teacher who specializes in opera.

Schindler gave a lecture about “Carmen” at Third Place Books as part of Seattle Opera’s education program.

Bizet’s “Carmen” premiered in 1875 at the Opera-Comique, the family friendly Paris opera house. In that era, opera was the entertainment that movies are today.

Martin Bernheimer, a New York opera critic, wrote that while “Carmen” had many of the technical components audiences expected — including a youth chorus and rousing couplets in the famous Toreador song — the show’s themes of lust, betrayal and murder were hardly family fare.

“It’s not exactly a Walt Disney opera,” Schindler said.

The story is based on a Prosper Merimee novel, itself an adaptation of a Pushkin poem.

Carmen is a wild gypsy girl. She seduces Don Jose, a good man who joined the army after killing a man. Carmen betrays Don Jose’s love, choosing instead to be with the bullfighter Escamillo. Enraged, Don Jose murders Carmen.

The plot is simple, while the emotions, the music, the staging, the polemic all are complex.

Songs and melodies from “Carmen” are instantly recognizable. The opera is set in Seville, Spain, and is, as Schindler points out, the “French idea of what Spanish music ought to sound like.”

Carmen’s “Habanera” and Escamillo’s “Toreador” are among the most famous opera arias ever. They are punchy, thrusting, staccato and rhythmic.

Like most Seattle Opera productions, there are two principal casts: the so-called Gold and Silver versions.

Mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, a young Georgian, makes her Seattle debut reprising a roll she’s performed to acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala, opera’s biggest stages. Malgorzata Walewska returns to Seattle as the silver Carmen.

Mexican tenor Luis Chapa is making his U.S. debut as Don Jose. Fellow Mexican Fernando de la Mora is the silver Don Jose.

The production uses the costumes from the 2004 staging and the sets are from the Lyric Opera in Kansas City. It’s set in period.

Among the many educational videos on Seattle Opera’s Website, General Director Speight Jenkins points out the similarities between “Carmen” and “Porgy and Bess,” the summer production the opera just finished.

Both operas consist of distinct songs bound by rich, symphonic pieces. Both composers died young, leaving these operas as their legacies.

“Carmen” opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Evening performances continue Oct. 19, 21, 22, 26, 28 and 29. A matinee is scheduled at 2 p.m. Oct. 23.

Tickets are $25 to $230 and can be purchased at or 800-426-1619.

Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447;

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