Florentine Opera's 'Carmen' is a musical seduction

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Photo: audreybabcock.com Florentine Opera opens its season with “Carmen.” -Photo: audreybabcock.com

Get ready to be seduced, Milwaukee. “Carmen” is back in town.

Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera about the sultry gypsy and her lovers, the soldier Don Jose and the toreador Escamillo, opens the 2012-13 season of Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera with two performances Oct. 26 and Oct. 28. Last performed at the Florentine in 2002, “Carmen” is one of the world’s most popular operas for several reasons, according to William Florescu, the Florentine’s artistic director.

“The music is earthy and rhythmically driven, and the characters are flawed, but sensual and sexy,” Florescu says. “It is an easy opera for people to like who might be put off by the zaftig, more stationary heroes of, say, a Wagner opera.”

The frequency with which the Florentine repeats its performances of the famous “opera-comique” has less to do with its popularity and more to do with the availability of top-notch talent to fill the demanding roles. Audrey Babcock returns to the Florentine as the alluring Carmen, a role that seems to have become central to the mezzo-soprano’s extensive operatic repertoire. 

Outside of her operatic career, Babcock tours with flamenco guitarist Dan Nadel under the stage name Aviva, performing “Beyond Carmen and Hot Songs for Cold Nights,” a set of songs performed in Ladino, an ancient Spanish dialect formerly spoken by Spain’s Jews. The pair recently released their first album, “Songs for Carmen,” a tribute to the role that’s believed to be based on legends of a Jewish temptress who lured men to their demise.

Internationally known tenor Noah Stewart makes his Florentine debut as the beleaguered Don Jose, lured by Carmen away from his betrothed Micaela (soprano Rena Harms), only to lose her to the haughty Escamillo (baritone Keith Phares). Stewart, whose debut album “Noah” has taken the U.K. by storm, is philosophical about the role.

“I interpret Don Jose as a former bad boy who tried to reform, but Carmen unleashes the wild side in him,” says Stewart, a classically trained Harlem native and graduate of The Julliard School. He also has sung backup for Coolio, Hootie and the Blowfish and Mariah Carey. “I think that (his wild) nature could have been suppressed if he would have married Micaela, but Carmen’s lawless life seemed more attractive.”

The relative immorality and lawlessness of the characters and the story’s depiction of 19th-century proletarian life broke new ground for French opera when it was first performed in March 1875. The opera opened to critical reviews and an indifferent public reaction. It began gaining traction through performances outside of France and did not reappear on the Paris stage until 1883.

Led by the famous “Toreador’s Song,” one of the best-known operatic arias, the music of “Carmen” has since been acclaimed for its melody, harmony and the atmosphere it creates for the tragic story it tells. It was the last opera for Bizet, who died of a heart attack on June 3, 1875, barely two months after the work’s inaugural performance. The composer never lived to see or benefit from the opera’s fame.

Since that time, “Carmen” has won its place as one of the central works of the operatic canon. Its appeal stems from its place as a “bridge” between the traditional opera-comique, which mixes songs with dialogue, and the realism and grittiness of later operas of the 19th century. “Carmen” also speaks to Bizet’s taste for unusual characters and settings.

“Carmen” and other such works also play a central role in the ongoing revival of classical opera as a popular art form, according to Stewart. Of course, other pop-culture factors come into play as well.

“I would attribute (the) revival in opera to the various competition shows such as ‘X Factor’ and ‘America’s Got Talent’ that present classical singers,” he says. Stewart also credits live transmissions of special performances of operas to movie theaters throughout the United States and on public television with “helping make opera a people’s art form again.”

For information on the Florentine Opera’s production of Bizet’s “Carmen,” visit www.florentineopera.org.

The Florentine Opera season at a glance

Bizet’s “Carmen” – Oct. 26, Oct. 28

“That’s Amore: A Concert of Love Songs” – Feb. 8-10

Britten’s “Albert Herring” – March 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 17

Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” – May 10, May 12