MN Opera’s Production of Bizet’s Carmen at The Ordway in St. Paul

Photo by Cory Weaver

I return to the MN Opera to take in a classic of the artform Georges Bizet’s Carmen. I am growing a greater and greater appreciation of opera. This is my 5th opera of 2022 which nearly ties the number of opera’s I’d see pre 2022. It’s my third MN Opera production after The Shining many years ago and Flight in 2020. It may be my growing appreciation for opera but this was the most enjoyable of the three. This so far is the closest I’ve come to that vision we novices have of what Opera is from ads for the Metropolitan Opera and scenes set at operas in films. I’m still waiting for that opportunity to see a large scale classic opera done in period costume with lavish sets. Until that opportunity arrives, this will do. I found Carmen to be very accessible, and I was thoroughly engaged in the characters and found the music enjoyable and familiar.

Carmen with music by Bizet, Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, is the story of a soldier Don Jose who falls in love and becomes obsessed with Carmen, a Romani girl for whom love only exists on her terms. Carmen behaves like a femme fatale form the film noirs of the 1940’s. She’s involved in a knife fight with another woman and when Don Jose is charged with guarding her, she convinces him to let her go. He is then sent to prison for letting her escape. Upon his release he meets up with Carmen and as things heat up between the two of them, he hears the bugle call which is the signal that he must return to the barracks. Carmen, not having been satisfied, demands that if he loves her he will go away with her. Don Jose refuses to desert but in the end, his Lieutenant Zuniga, finds them and Carmen’s smuggler friends tie him up. Don Jose is forced into the decision to go with them. Now he’s dishonored and on the run as a deserter. Some time later Carmen has grown tired of Don Jose who becomes increasingly jealous of other men. At one point Escamillo, the famous bullfighter, becomes Carmen’s new lover. Don Jose is unwilling to go home as Carmen suggests, but finally relents when he receives word that his mother is dying; however, before he leaves, he tells Carmen he will return. When he sees her again, it’s at Escamillo’s bullfight and when she will not take him back, he kills her. Carmen and Don Jose are archetypes of the self-centered manipulative woman and the jealous obsessive man in a dysfunctional relationship. We see this trajectory played out in theatre, film, and sadly real life over and over. Like much great art, Carmen holds a mirror up to reality and in doing so in this case illustrates the tragedy of certain human emotions and personalities.

I’ve written before about not having the terminology and tools to comment on the operatic style of singing. I can only say that I was in awe of all of the performers voices and the amazing performances they gave. Zoie Reams as Carmen had a commanding presence whenever she was on stage. Both her seductions and her indifferences came across as visceral making the reactions to them by the other characters feel genuine. Rafael Moras as Don Jose was equally compelling, making his infatuation, his jealousy, and finally despair and anger feel authentic. Other performances that stood out were Symone Harcum as Micaela, Don Jose’s hometown girlfriend. Allen Michael Jones as Zuniga and Aaron Keeney as Escamillo impressed with their performances as well.

I have praise and issues with the set design by Riccardo Hernandez and Costumes by Oana Botez. These designers works are flawless, the issue is with the director Denyce Graves choice of setting the opera in a modern time period. It feels like everytime I see a piece of classical theatre or opera it is set in a different period from which it was written for. Sometimes there’s an interesting reason for doing so style wise, other times it is because the time period adds a new dimension to the story or the work is used to comment on that time and place in history. Personally, I didn’t see what was added to this story by setting it out of the period in which it was written. But that said, the set is amazing as are the costumes. One thing that always impresses at MN Opera productions is the sense of scope in the sets they always feel larger than life and next very solid and real. With Carmen, one thing that adds to that sense of scale is the skillful lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker and Robert Wierzel. Finally Bizet’s music which surprised me by being familiar. You may not know Carmen the opera, but trust me you know some of the music. It’s an accessible and enjoyable score beautifully played by the orchestra conducted by Elias Grandy.

Carmen is performed in French with English captions projected above the stage. I wish they would project them just below the stage as well. With the height of set it’s impossible to keep the action on the stage in view at all while reading the captions. The production runs through May 22nd at the Ordway for more information and to purchase tickets go to

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