“Temptation is present in the music” is how Octavio Cardenas, director of Opera Santa Barbara’s (OSB) upcoming Carmen, explains the appeal of Bizet’s 1875 masterwork. According to Cardenas, Don José, the young soldier who falls in love with a dangerous gypsy, is not just drawn to Carmen’s evident sexuality but also the fact that she is “a person who likes her freedom.” He wants to be part of the gypsy life, an outlaw who “doesn’t answer to anybody.”
Although popular culture may have reduced the opera’s two most famous tunes — the “Habanera” from Act I and the “Toreador Song” from Act II — to the stuff of cartoons, when heard in their original context as part of this thrilling story’s relentless advance, they regain the fascinating aspect of dangerous temptation to which Cardenas alludes. There’s a sense of an erotic eagerness for doom in Carmen that translates the German concept of liebestod (“love death”) into a combination of Spanish (the music and the setting) and French (the language).
For mezzo-soprano Leann Sandel-Pantaleo, the role of Carmen arouses mixed feelings. “As a mezzo,” she said, “it’s obviously very important because there are only a few leads written for our voices. But as a woman, and especially as a Protestant farmgirl like me, it’s a real challenge. You are onstage almost the whole time, which is fine, but the character expresses so many things that are ugly and does so many things that are unsympathetic that it can be hard for me to match her aggression and still connect with the audience.”
Sandel-Pantaleo cited the duet in Act II between Carmen and Don José as a high point in the drama, saying that with tenor Harold Meers, her Don José, she has enjoyed approaching the scene with a fresh vision. Under Cardenas’s direction, the pair has plunged into the maelstrom of passion without bringing baggage from other productions along. Of Meers, Sandel-Pantaleo said, “He has a lovely tenderness to his voice, and he’s not married to one way of doing things.”
Opera Santa Barbara Artistic Director Kostis Protopapas will conduct what is sure to be a thrilling performance. Jeanine De Bique will sing the role of Micaëla, and Keith Phares is the toreador Escamillo. By all means, go to OSB’s Carmen, but don’t expect Bugs Bunny — this version has been built to restore the shock that accompanied the opera’s debut more than 100 years ago. “We are trying to bring the violence to life and to make every character, even Micaëla, come across as realistic,” said Cardenas. So watch out — and enjoy the temptation of the great and terrible Carmen. — Charles Donelan
Opera Santa Barbara presents Carmen Friday, November 4, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 6, 2:30 p.m. at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call (805) 899-2222 or see operasb.org.