Atlanta Opera opens its season Saturday with “Carmen,” one of the most popular operas of all time.
Created in 1875 by French composer George Bizet, “Carmen” is the tragic story of Don José, an unsophisticated soldier in 1820s Spain who becomes obsessed with Carmen, a gypsy femme fatale.
José’s mother has sent an innocent girl from his village, Micaëla, with a letter instructing José to marry her. Blinded by passion for Carmen, José instead deserts his post and joins her band of rebels. Carmen isn’t the settling-down type, however, and disaster arrives in the form of Escamillo, a famous bullfighter.
Directing the production will be Jeffrey Marc Buchman, who had a distinguished career as a baritone before moving into stage direction. As is often the case, budgetary restrictions prevented Buchman from developing an entire production from scratch. Instead, the company purchased period sets from Florida Grand Opera, Buchman has added his own ideas, and is using costumes rented from a Canadian company.
The result, Buchman said, is a staging that “takes the point of view of the original short story by Mérimée.” (Bizet’s librettists based the opera on Prosper Mérimée’s novella.)
“We see the story looking back through José’s eyes,” Buchman said. “During the overture and entr’actes, he is in a prison cell onstage, thinking back to how he came to be in this situation and what is about to happen … his execution [for Escamillo’s murder].”
Another distinctive feature of the Atlanta production is the importance of the choreography. Buchman is married to Rosa Mercedes, a choreographer, who has joined him on the project. Together, they’ve imagined the opera in a way that emphasizes dance, echoing some of the great “golden age” productions of “Carmen” (even George Balanchine once choreographed a production at the Metropolitan Opera).
Mercedes explained she has assembled a troupe of six local Flamenco dancers who will be incorporated into the opera, and she has been working with their Carmen, Marie José Montiel, whose role calls for specific dances.
She’s also worked with the chorus and the other principals, “especially Escamillo, on body language and movement,” to create a more authentic visual performance.
Montiel, the Spanish mezzo-soprano who will sing the title role, has performed it around the world to considerable acclaim. Regarding a performance in Liceu last year, critic Jaimé Argemi wrote: “Montiel was stunning. She expressed the complex nature of her heroine as much by the quality of her singing as through provocative gestures.”
Mexican tenor Fernando de la Mora plays Don José, soprano Melissa Shippen is Atlanta’s Micaëla and Russian-American baritone Aleksey Bogdanov will portray Escamillo. The performances will be led by Atlanta Opera’s music director, Arthur Fagen.
Perhaps the staying power of “Carmen” derives from the intensity with which it combines the themes of fate, sex, betrayal and death. The twin metaphors of fortune-telling and bullfighting are nicely woven into the text. And, most of all, Bizet’s electrifying score provides a kind of dramatic intensity presaging the verismo era, which emerged in the following decades.
This will be Atlanta Opera’s first production since the abrupt departure of its popular general director, Dennis Hanthorn, who did so much to revive the company’s fortunes in his eight years at the helm. While the company is essentially rudderless — the board does not plan to appoint an interim director — the entire season had been planned out before Hanthorn’s departure. William E. Tucker, board chairman, indicated that the search for a successor was unlikely to be concluded before the end of the season.
If you’re springing for opera tickets, it only makes sense to do a bit of preparation and listen to a recording beforehand. In the case of “Carmen,” there are many good choices. Perhaps the most compelling is the 1964 Angel recording with Maria Callas. This recording is among her finest, the rest of the cast is exemplary (Nicolai Gedda is her Don José), and George Prêtre’s conducting is powerful. The remastered compact disc is easily found, but an MP3 version can be downloaded from Amazon.
“Carmen.” 8 p.m. Nov. 10 and 16, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13, 3 p.m. Nov. 18. $26.70-$132.36. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.