‘Carmen' comes to Israel

On Zubin Mehta’s stage, the opera’s a song and dance.

Israeli Spanish dance artist Ornili Azulay. (photo credit: BEN LAM)
Israeli Spanish dance artist Ornili Azulay.
(photo credit: BEN LAM)
It is an amusing bit of irony that many people who detest opera somehow find themselves liking Georges Bizet’s Carmen. And even people who know little or nothing about opera seem to know the story of Carmen in its broad outlines. This opera, based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée and first performed in Paris in 1875, is the classic tale of a good boy who is ruined by falling in love with the wrong girl.
That “wrong girl” is Carmen, a sultry young Gypsy woman who works in a cigarette factory in the Spanish city of Seville in 1820. “Love is a Gypsy child, a wild bird that knows no law. If you don’t love me, I love you; and if I love you, watch out!” she sings during her break at work one day to an admiring crowd of her fellow factory girls, townsfolk and young men – who gaze at her ardently.
The only man in the crowd who is clearly disinterested in her is young Don José, a soldier standing guard nearby. Rising to the challenge, Carmen takes a flower from her hair and tosses it at José before walking seductively back to work.
Carmen then starts a fight in the tobacco factory by attacking another woman with a knife, deliberately trying to get arrested. While José is tying her hands and taking her to jail, Carmen beguiles him with promises of a night of dancing and passion in Lillas Pastia’s tavern. The poor mesmerized soldier, already Carmen’s slave, allows her to flee and is then arrested and sent to jail himself for dereliction of duty.
José is released from jail a month later and goes to meet Carmen and her friends at the tavern. He arrives to find that the crowd in the tavern had earlier been admiring the handsome young toreador Escamillo. Carmen’s affection for José has cooled considerably, and she manipulates him into deserting the army and running away with her and her friends to the hills on a smuggling expedition.
Carmen grows bored with José, while he becomes increasingly possessive of her.
José leaves the smugglers’ redoubt in the hills to see his dying mother in Seville.
Several weeks later, José stands outside the bullring in Seville, waiting for Carmen, who is on her way to see her lover Escamillo perform in a bullfight. José begs her to return to him, but she refuses.
José stabs her at the very moment that Escamillo slaughters the bull inside the ring. As the crowd exits the arena and the police approach José, he cries, “Arrest me. I killed her. Oh, my beloved Carmen!” Carmen may well be the world’s most popular opera and probably the most often performed. Leading opera houses have not only staged the work but have been recording it since the 1890s, with the earliest recordings on wax cylinders and the most recent on DVDs. Since the earliest days of cinema, Carmen has been the subject of almost 100 films, including some 40 silent movies. Most performances have been more or less faithful to Bizet’s original vision, while others have involved some rather interesting and creative adaptations. For example, a 1943 Broadway musical called Carmen Jones, with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, was set in Chicago and featured an African American cast. A 1954 film adaptation of the musical was directed by Otto Preminger and starred Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. A more recent African American treatment, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, starring Beyoncé Knowles, appeared in 2001. Lovers of this iconic opera have even been treated to Carmen on Ice, starring German figure skater Katarina Witt, inspired by Witt’s gold-medal performance at the 1988 Winter Olympics.
Carmen is also a feature production this year of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, performed as a concert and directed by the orchestra’s music director and principal conductor, Zubin Mehta.
Concert opera – a complete, fulllength opera presented with the soloists, orchestra, chorus and conductor on stage – has become a sort of genre in itself. Those who favor concert opera see it as a way to appreciate the singing voice in its purest form, stripped of sets, costumes and other accoutrements that often distract both the eye and ear from the operatic score. The focus is on the performers and the music.
The performers of the Israel Philharmonic’s concert production of Carmen include two sopranos, two mezzo-sopranos, two tenors, three baritones and one bass-baritone, along with the full orchestra and the Gary Bertini Israeli Choir. Famed Spanish mezzo-soprano María José Montiel sings the role of Carmen.
In an unusual artistic decision, Mehta adds an additional performer to dance the role of Carmen as well – Israeli Spanish dance artist Ornili Azulay. She grew up in Herzliya, studied flamenco and classical Spanish in Israel under Sylvia Duran, and then in Spain with such eminent figures as Tomas De Madrid, Maria Magdalena and Victoria Eugenia, former director of the Spanish National Ballet. She has since performed throughout the world. Azulay first came to Mehta’s attention through tenor Plácido Domingo, with whom she worked in the US dancing Carmen. She was also known to Mehta in 2007 for being the third Israeli artist to perform at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
Mehta and the IPO had collectively been the second, appearing there a short time before.
“I really feel privileged that Maestro Mehta invited me to give a dramatic sensual dimension to several moments, several parts of the opera,” Azulay says.
“I am dancing in several very important parts of the show, but I was especially honored when he asked me to choreograph and dance during pieces that are not usually danced. These are parts of the opera that Bizet did not plan to be danced. I’m talking about the ‘Chanson Bohémienne,’ the ‘Gypsy Song,’ for example. In the libretto, this is clearly a song and nothing else. Another example is the Cards Aria, in which Carmen learns of her imminent death from fortune- telling cards. When the maestro asked me to perform this, it was a tremendous moment for me. He asked me to dance the Cards Aria, which is very dramatic, very tragic and very slow. It does not easily lend itself to a Gypsy style dance. It’s a seriously dramatic aria where Carmen reads in the cards that a tragic end is awaiting her. For me, a lot of the ‘Chanson Bohémienne’ is about sex games – very sensual, very feminine.
The Cards Aria, however, shows a deeply tragic dimension. She is not angry. She understands her fate and is prepared for it. Carmen was born free, and Carmen will die free. I’ve always dream-danced that aria but didn’t dare suggest it to Maestro Mehta because he’s the great Maestro Mehta,” she says.
Azulay believes that presenting the opera Carmen in concert form appeals particularly to Israeli audiences, as does the character Carmen.
“I personally feel that the fact that the opera is presented this way, trimmed down and to the point, without all the sets and costumes, is a way of ‘cutting to the chase’ as the saying goes. Because of this, there’s a great deal of Israel in it. Everyone loves Carmen everywhere in the world. I have danced Carmen all over the world, in many kinds of productions.
But I think people are even crazier about Carmen here in Israel. Because she is so straightforward, so sexy, so colorful.
She’s a true Mediterranean girl. Here in Israel, I think she’s more appreciated than in other places,” she says.
Internationally acclaimed and multi-awarded, Mehta was music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra from 1961 to 1967 and of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra from 1962 to 1978. He was music director and principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic for 13 years, the longest directorship in the orchestra’s history.
Since 1985, he has been chief conductor of the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence. In 1969, Mehta was appointed music adviser to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and was made music director in 1977. In 1981 the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra awarded him the title of Music Director for Life.
When dancer Azulay speaks of the maestro, her words assume a tone of unabashed reverence, bordering on awe.
“Maestro Mehta is a rock, a living monument,” she says. “It’s a privilege for the State of Israel to have such a great artist and one who cares so deeply about this country. When we, the performers in Carmen, are standing backstage, each of us waiting for our moment to get out on stage, the respect and admiration we feel for him is indescribable. We feel that we are living history by being invited to perform with him and sharing a stage with him. We feel like we’re seeing and working with…” Azulay is silent for a moment and then concludes, “We feel we are seeing a prophet.”
The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Carmen in Tel Aviv on March 17, 19 and 20; and in Haifa on March 22. For tickets and other information: www.ipo.co.il