Georges Bizet's Carmen is one of the most popular operas ever written. Why then has Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater, known for 40 years as the primary North Bay presenter of chamber opera, never once staged it? Audiences have clearly been waiting for it; the current three-weekend run was sold out before opening night (prompting the addition of one Wednesday-night performance on June 12).
Perhaps Cinnabar's cozy theater space made the character-heavy Carmen seem like too ambitious an undertaking. If so, director Elly Lichenstein, along with musical director Mary Chun, has ably met that challenge, presenting a nicely crammed but cleverly realized, emotionally rich—and super sexy—staging of the 1875 opera that once shocked audiences with its provocative images (females smoking cigarettes! soldiers cavorting with "loose women"!) and morally questionable subject matter: seduction, sexual obsession, jealousy, madness and murder.
With a strong central cast and a veritable army of ensemble players, the stage overflows with energy and action, sometimes quite literally, and Lichenstein, whose work here represents some of her finest ever, packs every scene with eye-popping visuals and clever details.
The beautiful and asymmetrical set by David Lear works upon ominous collapsing slabs with gaping holes in a rock-like facade. This gives the stage a suitably chameleon-like quality, rapidly shifting with the addition of a piece or two of furniture to become a smuggler's lair, the interior of a lively tavern or the bustling village square where women from the local cigarette factory cavort with soldiers stationed in town.
One of those factory workers is Carmen (played with plenty of fire and voracious confidence by mezzo-soprano Rebecca Krouner, magnificent!). A Victorian-era force of nature, Carmen is "a naughty girl and a gypsy too," as she describes herself early on. She knows she can have any man she wants, and since most men want her, she sets her eyes on the straight-laced, duty-obsessed soldier Don José (Mark Andrew Kratz, whose glorious tenor has been featured at the Kennedy Center in Washington).
Carmen uses men before they have a chance to use and abuse her, and once José has given up everything for her, she shifts her affections to a handsome bullfighter (Jason Detwiler).
The result, set to some of the most memorable music ever written for the stage, well played by Chun's first-rate chamber orchestra, is an emotionally complex tragedy. As staged at Cinnabar, it's also one of the best shows, opera or otherwise, of 2013.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★½