Mark Gresham | 20 APR 2021
You’ve been out ridin’ fences for so long now
Oh, you’re a hard one
I know that you got your reasons
These things that are pleasin’ you
Can hurt you somehow
She’ll beat you if she’s able
You know the queen of hearts is always your best bet
Now it seems to me, some fine things
Have been laid upon your table
But you only want the ones that you can’t get
as recorded by The Eagles, 1973
The Piney Woods of East Texas are about as far west as you can go and still be in Dixie. “The West” as we commonly think of it begins at Fort Worth, the self proclaimed “city of cowboys and culture.” If you have to inscribe a line on a map as to where East Texas ends and The West begins (more to the point, the southernmost part of The Great Plains) you could do pretty well to draw a line southward from the western city limits of Dallas and Ft. Worth down Interstate 45 to Houston, then down to Galveston on the Gulf coast. That does it for most purposes.
But The Great Plains isn’t the only “West” in Texas. Draw another line from Houston out to Austin and continue it in a big northward-curving arc west of Amarillo and out the top of the panhandle. There you have the rough border between the Great Plains and that southwestern part Texas that is predominantly Mexican-American. Texas is a big state, the second largest in the nation after Alaska, and one which has regions in three different and fairly well-defined American cultural nations.
Except for the sharp rift between Dallas and Fort Worth, these borders are not all that hard and fast. Running along the eastern side of that line from Dallas to Houston is a narrow swath about a county wide where the culture transitions from Great Plains to Southern, with the caveat that some folks consider the Gulf coast counties an entirely separate thing on their own.
On top of that, within East Texas is what’s known as Deep East Texas, a collection of a dozen counties which most definitively characterize the intrinsic culture of the Piney Woods. Throughout the era of Euro-American settlement, the relatively isolated region has never been fully tamed by government – not Mexico, Republic, State or Federal. As a result, it became early on a convenient refuge for criminals hiding out in a “no man’s land” in the thickets — or for anyone wanting a little isolation from too much imposition of law and governmental authority.
And that, in more than a mere nutshell, describes the world inhabited by The Atlanta Opera’s most recent production, The Threepenny Carmen, which opened this past Thursday to an enthusiastic audience.
The Threepenny Carmen is not simply a condensed version of the original Carmen. That could, have been done easily enough. Instead, it digs into the relevance of Bizet’s 1875 classic by transporting it to a radically different place and culture in our own day, country and region. Of necessity, it is reduced from four acts to four scenes to keep it around 90 to 100 minutes as part of the company’s pandemic safety protocols. At that level of deconstruction, you might as well stretch the innovation a great deal further.
Directed by Tomer Zvulun, The Atlanta Opera’s general & artistic director, this world premiere production plays out the story in a Spanish-themed dive bar in Deep East Texas, where Carmen (Megan Marino) works as one of several “ladies of entertainment” (you might offer “cabaret singer” in more polite company); Don José (Richard Trey Smagur) is a small-town police officer; Escamillo (Michael Mayes) is a braggadocious rodeo star; Micaëla (Jasmine Habersham) remains the least transformed, still the faithful ingénue sweetheart of Don José who tries to encourage his better self.
Other members of the singing cast in this opening night performance included Calvin Griffin (El Dancairo). Nathan Munson (El Remendado), Alejandra Sandoval (Frasquita), Gabrielle Beteag (Mercedes). But there are two non-singing roles to this new version which are highly important.
A long-time Atlanta theatrical icon, actor Tom Key plays the narrating role of Lilas Pastia, the owner of the infamous Threepenny Tavern, known for being a place you can quickly get yourself into some real trouble.
On the one hand, the tavern parallels the inn in Act 2 of Bizet’s original, but in this production it is the focal point of action for the whole Carmen story.
Key plays Pastia like half cowboy saloon bartender and half evangelical southern preacher – one might wager that Key has never gotten entirely over Cotton Patch Gospel, and that kind of characterization continues be a calling card for his fans.
Based on Key’s opening monologue, one might expect to see a sign over the bar that reads “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” but instead we get a giant Coca-Cola sign behind the bar where a mirror ought normally be (talk about product placement!). You also have the stereotypical use of expired car and truck license tags, again emphasizing the Southern element, although the bar’s theme is supposedly Spanish.
Doubling down on that Spanish theme is the strong presence of Flamenco. The production marks the Atlanta Opera debut of Flamenco dance legend Sonia Olla. You could say that Olla’s presence as a dancer serves as a kind of shadow for Carmen – another side of her character or or perhaps Carmen’s exotic fantasy of herself. It brings to mind The Atlanta Opera’s 2017 Discoveries Series production of Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, where there were two representations of Anna are present: a pragmatic, admonishing Anna 1 portrayed by an actress-singer, and an artistic, passionate Anna 2 portrayed by a dancer — different parts of one Anna’s psyche.
Despite that bit of comparative psychoanalysis, what the presence of Flamenco dance does mostly in this Carmen is lend more spectacle, visceral energy, and exotic flavor to the production’s exploration of sexual freedom, passion and jealousy, class and social order. It is true that parts of the score, notably the “Seguidilla,” do utilize rhythms and instrumentation associated with flamenco music. However, Carmen is a French opera, not a Spanish one. While the music’s flamenco elements contribute to the opera’s unique atmosphere, they constitute only a small portion of the music in the full-length original.
This integration of Flamenco dance and percussion also worked well with the Big Tent’s new stage and socially distanced seating setup. For the fall’s productions of Pagliacci and The Kaiser of Atlantis the stage was positioned on the long side of the tent, with the audience surrounding in a three-quarter arrangement around it. In Carmen, the stage is at one of the rounded ends of the tent’s length. A long runway from the stage divides the audience left and right, running lengthwise toward the far end of the tent, terminating about halfway in steps to an audience-level open aisle for actors to exit or enter. It allows for the action to be spread out enough into the audience for the back rows to not be left out of the sense of immediacy and presence that those seated closer to the main stage enjoy.
It’s important to note that in this Americanized telling, Marino’s beautifully sung portrayal of Carmen need not be Roma (Gypsy) as in Bizet’s original nor even of Spanish heritage, just someone of free spirit, for whom Andalusian exoticism is a fantasy escape from her everyday world (thus the Flamenco dancer as her shadow). Perhaps she is a Piney Woods local, perhaps not – though for the locals in Tavern, she is already is the exotic among them by default, exuding a captivating magnetism which might find a lot more competition in the glass and steel fortresses of Houston or Dallas. But in the Tavern, she is the Queen of Diamonds and Desire.
While there are a number of those born in East Texas who say have escaped from behind “The Pine Curtain” there are those who have not, and are more tied to their roots preference or some other reason – perhaps a feeling of fate. Despite the pretense of free spirit, the fortune-telling scene and its truth-telling deck of cards evokes fate, cards of such things as money, love and death.
No surprise that luck and fate in a deck of cards has its own presence in American folklore through games like poker: Don’t you draw the queen of diamonds, boy / She’ll beat you if she’s able / You know the queen of hearts is always your best bet – to re-reference the Eagles song “Desperado.” You can bet that’s true for Texas lore.
Despite the fact that Carmen is the opera’s title character, the real focus is the evolving fate of Don José (Rishcar Trey Smagur). Why the name wasn’t Americanized to “Officer Joe” for this production is worth wondering.
José starts off as the token of law and order – contrary to the free-spirited and rule defying Carmen – and we watch that slowly crumble, internally and externally, over the course of the show, despite any influence of Micaëla or family responsibilities. Passion, obsession and jealousy take him over just as they did in Smagur’s portrayal of Canio is Pagliacci last fall, despite opportunity to do otherwise. Now it seems to me, some fine things / Have been laid upon your table / But you only want the ones that you can’t get” says the Eagles’ song.
As a kind of Queen of Hearts in this card game, Micaëla (Jasmine Habersham) offers José the honorable and socially safe choice for avoiding his sordid fate, but he is blind to it. There is with Micaëla, and through her with his own mother, a kind of implied Catholicism at work (think of an Angel of Mercy and Innocence at work for José’s salvation at the behest of the Holy Mother) in a land that is primarily Protestant (itself invoked by Key’s portrayal of barkeep Pastia). In this version, José’s mother is in a hospital, having been infected by the coronavirus, wanting him to visit and receive her blessing before she dies. (One might wager it’s the hospital in Tyler, Texas, though we’re not told.)
If any character is a grounded personality in this show, it’s Micaëla, though she too has her emotional moments, but it is an innocent stability which comes from a familiar place in a socially restrained moral system, not a place like the Tavern where most of that has flown the coop. The Tavern does, however, have its own “moral environment” – it’s just a decadent morality.
Every gambler knows / That the secret to survivin’ / Is knowin’ what to throw away / And knowin’ what to keep. (~Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”)
But Don José continues to play the hand he’s dealt badly, choosing growing obsession over self-preservation.
In great contrast is the character of Escamillo. While Escamillo could be played straight as a most serious representation of threatening alpha male bullfighter, Michael Mayes, who was actually born and raised in East Texas, plays the role more toward a comic side: an overly-confident rhinestone rodeo star who sings about riding bucking bulls more than the time he spends riding one. Those who know the sport know that’s keen insight into the obvious, because American bull riding is notorious for being “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.” So, naturally, he leverages his rodeo star branding as a singer. And yes, you don’t have to go to Fort Worth and beyond for rodeo. Ask anyone in Nacogdoces County, where PRCA professional rodeo is very much alive and well.
Escamillo comes off as a bit of what the Brits would call a “flash bastard.” An immediate clue-in is the shiny costume which goes as far as having rows of LED lights embedded in his jacket and pants – something much more at home in a cowboy-themed New York City disco than small town Texas. But it is part of the entertainment industry persona that attracts fans – and in this particular case, Carmen, who is drawn to him and his show-biz exoticism no less her own draws Don José and other men to her, like night-flying insects to a front porch bug zapper.
While the original Carmen in its own day was a shocking ground-breaker within the genre of French of opéra comique, with a dollop of proto-verismo on top with the Carmen and José the story doesn’t seem all that shocking today. The story we get in its stead from The Atlanta Opera is Southern Gothic worthy of William Faulkner, blended with a bit of Texas Noir.
The sets by Julia Noulin-Mérat and costumes by Joanna Schmink are said to draw inspiration from the films of Pedro Almodóvar, a Spanish filmmaker known for colorful, melodramatic and sexually-themed films, but you would not know that unless you are already familiar with Almodóvar’s films. Most of us are going to have to assess these things on their own terms, and from that perspective, the performance, set/wardrobe design, lighting and use digital audio-video technology, proved absolutely captivating.
The highlights of Bizet’s music used in this production, performed in a separate tent by a greatly reduced Atlanta Opera Orchestra under the baton of Jorge Parodi, were well chosen — even if that was not a difficult task, since the most popular numbers are well-known. But one also has to wonder what we would have had if, in the process of a Americanizing the libretto, characters, set and scenery, the same could have been done with the music – imagine the possibilities of Texas fiddling, bluegrass, country music and even Texas Swing in that role with the re-imagined Carmen. You never know: That may happen someday.
In the meantime, we have an engaging new and innovative Threepenny Carmen in the middle of a run that may change your mind about what opera can be, whether you are already an established opera fan or have never seen one before.
The shows continue through May 8. After this week, Mayes and Marino will head out to Texas for a different gig with Houston Grand Opera – a 90-minute stadium show based on that company’s previously canceled production of The Sound of Music.
They will be replaced in the remaining performances of Threepenny Carmen by Ashley Dixon and Theo Hoffman as Carmen and Escamillo. In addition, for the final two shows Calvin Griffen will be replaced by Brian James Myer in the role of El Dancairo.
All of the remaining shows will be interleaved with performances of The Atlanta Opera’s new production of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, on alternate nights. Threepenny Opera, a production heavily populated with puppets, makes its debut this Thursday, April 22. ■