BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Who is Carmen, exactly? Yes, she is the gypsy cigarette factory worker of Bizet's opera, but assessments of her character range from a "superstitious, pleasure-loving good for nothing'' (George Bernard Shaw in his music critic days) to a tragic heroine who displays "a strong nobility as she submits to destiny'' (Alfred Glasser in The Lyric Opera Companion).
Set in Seville around 1820, Carmen is the classic love triangle. She seduces a soldier named Don José but soon abandons him for a bullfighter, Escamillo. Distraught with jealousy, Don José stabs Carmen to death outside a bullring. All this unfolds in one of opera's greatest scores, full of catchy tunes like the "Toreador Song'' and Carmen's aria Habanera.
"I think you have to look at the time period and the culture Carmen lived in,'' says Mark Sforzini, artistic director of St. Petersburg Opera, who will be on the podium for three performances of Bizet's masterpiece this weekend at the Palladium Theater. The conductor takes an essentially feminist approach to understanding the opera's heroine.
"She was a woman who had a strong personality and was trying to make her way in the world the best she could,'' Sforzini says. "I think the men called all the shots, but if you've got a beautiful, seductive woman, then she can claim some power. I think that's what she did.''
Cherry Duke, the mezzo-soprano who is playing Carmen, looks at her character with a certain amount of ambivalence.
"I don't think Carmen has a lot of principles per se, but playing her, I have to find the good parts of her, and that's her freedom. She does whatever she wants, and many of us could take a lesson from that,'' Duke says.
"She behaves, in a way, like a man would, especially in sexual terms. It was common for Latin men to have multiple sex partners, to be married and have lovers on the side. Well, Carmen did that, but because she was a woman, it was considered immoral and wanton. From that perspective, you could say she was a progressive woman. But she was also a criminal. She stole things and used her feminine wiles to aid smugglers. So you get sort of mixed up with the morality there.''
For Duke, Carmen is the ultimate example of a woman living in the moment. "So many modern women will ask about a guy, 'Is he really the one? Am I really in love with him?' Carmen just throws herself body and soul into every entanglement. She's just going to go there and be totally in love with him until she isn't, and then she's done. She stays in the moment.''
Carmen picks the wrong man when she gets involved with Don José, the possessive corporal who blows off his army career to join her in a smuggling ring. Mark Nicolson, the tenor who plays Don José on Friday and Sunday (John Tsotsoros sings the role Saturday) sees him as a dangerously conflicted figure: small-town Catholic mama's boy on the one hand, needy control freak on the other.
"I feel there's a lot of mental instability in Don José,'' Nicolson says. "His music goes from sharp to flat constantly. Traditionally, those are the darker and the brighter sides of the same key, and I think that's what Bizet intended.''
The gypsy and the soldier are doomed from the moment they meet, and their relationship reaches its inevitable end in one of opera's most gripping finales. It is her shining hour. As Shaw wrote, "Carmen is never so alive as when she dies under Jose's knife.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.