'Carmen' review: Minnesota Opera shifts story

  to '70s, and it soars

By Rob Hubbard
Special to the Pioneer Press

Who would think that the story of a promiscuous barfly and her stalker would become one of the world's most popular operas? But Georges Bizet's "Carmen" is certainly that, and Minnesota Opera's season-closing production underlines its attractiveness: Before it even opened Saturday night at St. Paul's Ordway Music Theater, it already had sold more tickets than any production in the company's half-century history.

There's a caveat with that: Minnesota Opera is offering about twice as many performances as customary. But its "Carmen" is a production with a lot of imagination and a very intriguing design (Erhard Rom sets,  Jessica Jahn costumes and Mark McCullough lighting).  And instead of being chiefly a showcase for its leads -- as "Carmen" has been known for many an opera star -- this is a very impressive ensemble piece, with minor characters fleshed out in fascinating fashion and outstanding singing coming from all corners of the cast.

But no matter which set of leads you get, the staging will give you plenty of fresh perspective on this oft-revived opera. Director Michael Cavanaugh maintains its original setting of Seville, Spain, but fast-forwards to 1975, right after the death of oppressive dictator Francisco Franco. There's chaos and corruption as military rule crumbles, and opening to the outside world involves garish wardrobes, disco dance moves and porn smuggling. Amid all this, Carmen seduces hapless soldiers and a superstar bullfighter before becoming the object of a most unhealthy obsession.

 Minnesota Opera's production deserves kudos for developing such an original approach to the work and throwing so much talent and energy into it.