When Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” had its premiere in 1875, the title character was a new kind of woman in opera.
No spotless soprano, Carmen was, in the words of a conservative critic who attended the first performance, “the very incarnation of vice.”
Bizet based his opera on a novella by Prosper Mérimée, which tells of the wanton gypsy Carmen who seduces a soldier. He abadons his fiancée and deserts the military.
The work is full of now-familiar tunes, such as the Toreador Song. But for some reason, “Carmen” initially was a dud with critics and audiences.
Although fizzling in its first run, “Carmen” quickly established itself in the operatic canon, becoming one of the most-performed operas in the world.
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City will present “Carmen,” starring rising opera mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde in the title role, for four performances beginning Saturday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Jose Maria Condemi, who is directing the Lyric Opera’s production, sees Carmen as the distaff version of another operatic libertine.
“She’s like Don Giovanni,” Condemi said. “She’s one of those mythical characters who are archetypes of desire. She’s a one-of-a-kind woman, and her ability to send Don José’s life into a whirlwind of passion and chaos is kind of amazing to watch.
“And no matter how many times I’ve seen ‘Carmen’ and worked with it, I’m always amazed by the power of the story and how well it’s set to music by the composer and the librettists.”
Mezzo-soprano Švēde, who will be singing the role of Carmen for the first time, was born in Latvia and is an Adler fellow with the San Francisco Opera. Although Condemi has worked extensively with the San Francisco Opera, this will be the first time he is directing Švēde.
“I am just absolutely fascinated by her talent,” he said. “The good thing about Zande is that she’s new, so everything we do is fresh. She is making decisions about the character as we go. That freshness and the immediacy to her character will be palpable to the audience because there’s no way anything could feel stilted.”
Švēde began singing in choirs while growing up in Latvia. Singing in Latvia is centrally important to the culture. Švēde is proud of her native country’s musical heritage.
“Latvia has a very strong choral tradition,” she said. “Once in five years there is a big, big festival called the Singing Festival where about 10,000 people come on a big stage together and sing choral songs.
“It’s a huge tradition that has brought Latvia through all the occupations and everything. We even call the revolution that happened in 1991, when Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union, the ‘Singing Revolution’ because people were without firearms standing against the tanks, singing.”
Švēde isn’t the first Latvian opera singer to make a name for herself in the United States. Mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča is currently one of the most popular singers at the Metropolitan Opera and other opera houses around the world. Interestingly, one of the roles for which Garanča has received the most acclaim is Carmen.
What is it about Latvians and their affinity for this tempestuous Spanish femme fatale? According to Švēde, the difference in the Baltic and Latin temperaments is key.
“Latvian culture is so passive, in a way, that there’s a strong urge inside to do the things you don’t do normally,” Švēde said.
Švēde says that’s one of the things she most loves about singing the role. She admits that she’s fascinated with Carmen’s “spirit and freedom,” but hesitates to say that she identifies with Carmen.
“Well, I probably can’t say that publicly because everyone thinks that Carmen is a villain, and we’re supposed to be the good people,” Švēde said.
“But there is something really, really fascinating about her. It’s delicious to play a role where you do something you wouldn’t do in your real life. You get to be the bad person. And, unlike Carmen, you get to stay out of prison.”
Les Arts Florissants
The Harriman-Jewell Series introduced Kansas City to the illustrious early music ensemble Les Arts Florissants in 1990. Over the years the group, led by William Christie, has given several memorable performances in Kansas City and it looks like the program Christie and company have cooked up for Saturday at the Kauffman Center is going to be a doozy, or as the French would say, un spectaculaire.
“Serious airs and drinking songs” is described by Les Arts as “lightly staged as a troupe of actors rehearsing, flirting and arguing in song like the cast of an early music soap opera.” I would expect minimalist costumes, some tasteful mugging and other schtick.
But this music needs nothing other than itself to totally charm an audience. And Christie has chosen music by some of the brightest stars in the 18th century French firmament, Michel Lambert, Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Jean-Philippe Rameau. It doesn’t get any better than this.
It’s perplexing that these composers aren’t as well known as Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and other composers of the German and Italian Baroque. French Baroque music is utterly delightful with toe-tapping rhythms and melodies ornamented like gilt Rococo filigree. It glitters like the Palace of Versailles.
“Gypsies, Tangos and Lullabies”
You can belly up to the Bartók when the Kansas City Symphony presents a happy hour concert this Tuesday at Helzberg Hall. Come early for a cocktail at the cash bar, and then enjoy “Gypsies, Tangos and Lullabies” featuring Symphony players performing chamber works like Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2, “Three Tangos” by Mariano Mores, a marimba-flavored piece by Andy Akiho and a lullaby by the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov. The concert is free, but you must reserve you general admission ticket.
Reach Patrick Neas at email@example.com.