Love and death in Santa Barbara: A perfect ‘Carmen’ for Fiesta time

Brianna Hunter as Carmen and Brett Payne as Don Jose star in the Music Academy of the West's production of "Carmen"
Brianna Hunter as Carmen and Brett Payne as Don Jose star in the
Music Academy of the West’s production of “Carmen”

It was an idea that was strangely overdue, this production of “Carmen” in the middle of Fiesta. It only took the Music Academy of the West and Old Spanish Days to agree to work together and suddenly it seemed an obvious thing. Set one of the world’s most popular operas in Santa Barbara during the year the opera was premiered (well, give or take a year), and end the performance with a re-creation of an authentic fiesta: you can’t really miss, not when some in the audience are dressed similarly to people onstage.

Friday night’s performance was one of only two (the other being Sunday), making this “Carmen” a must-see in the arts community.

Brianna Hunter, with co-star Brett Payne, was fabulous in the title role of "Carmen," at the Granada Theater last weekend
Brianna Hunter, with co-star Brett Payne, was fabulous in the title role
of “Carmen,” at the Granada Theater last weekend

Having Music Academy of the West in charge of the production meant that the lead roles are suitably age-appropriate, with Carmen (Briana Hunter) and her lover Don Jose (Brett Payne) looking very young and susceptible to the fires of love. Enigmatic toreador Escamillo (Thomas Cannon) is older, more confident and wiser.

So what can be said about Bizet’s music for “Carmen” that hasn’t already been written? It’s the pop smash of the entire genre and while it might not have anything as heart-wrenching as a Verdi or Puccini aria, it has everything else: the rousing “March of the Toreadors” theme as overture; the Habanera, which oozes sex and defines Carmen’s character; the flirty “Chanson Boheme”; Act Four’s prelude that epitomizes the Spanish setting of the play, and much more. The Frenchman Bizet, while performing his own cultural appropriation, created something that feels Spanish-born. (“Why is it in French?” I heard somebody whisper to their partner during the intermission.) Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, you know the soundtrack, so to speak.

The Granada Theater’s stage is big, but not too big, and delivered a rather intimate set designed by Sandra Goldmark, veteran of other Music Academy productions. This was Santa Barbara, early 1850s, with the Santa Ynez mountains visible in the back. In a cool bit of design, the various strata of geologic time could be seen, as if the range had been sliced like a cake. And in front of that, there was a mercado, adobe buildings and red tile roofs, over which flew an early stars ‘n’ stripes. Later that would be transformed into the hills above the town and the rebel camp to which Carmen and Don Jose flee, then back to the mercado for the final act. For those looking for a little flamenco flavor in the costumes, the production didn’t really tend that way, opting for more folk-style costumes.

As for the performances, Ms. Hunter was fabulous, focusing more on her freedom as an unbridled spirit than her sexual power. Mr. Payne played Don Jose as a sort of man-child, baby-faced, not cut out for the army or for being a rebel, a mama’s boy and utterly confused by sexual relations. Mr. Cannon stole all his moments, almost making one wonder why Escamillo doesn’t have more scenes. Alison King’s Micaila was also a sort of little lost lamb, and sang the hell out of the opera’s least famous arias, which I guess is what you get when Carmen gets all the good bits.

The sexual politics of “Carmen,” underneath the spectacle and the melodies that by this time are part of our cultural DNA, are what stick out now. One forgets how lecherous all the men are right from the get-go in this story, horndogs all, and how Don Jose’s final murderous act comes straight from an immature man who can’t accept his inability to control a woman. We read sordid tales like these in the news everyday, which makes “Carmen” unnerving even while it charms us with sweet music.

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