If it weren’t for Native Americans, Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” the world’s second most popular opera – a whopping 698 performances in the 2017-2018 season (Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” was No. 1 at 861 performances) – wouldn’t exist. And Knoxville would have missed out on a wonderful performance by the UT Opera Theatre last weekend at the Bijou Theatre.
The title character is the feisty cigarerra (female cigarette roller) at the center of Bizet’s story. During the time period of the opera, which is set in Seville, more than 3,000 cigarerras worked in Seville’s Royal Tobacco Factory.
Spain, of course, claimed the discovery of the New World from the time of the voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Spanish explorers soon discovered indigenous Americans were smoking a plant they had never seen before, tobacco. It wasn’t long before it became a commercial product being hauled back home.
In 1614, Spanish King Philip III decreed that all tobacco grown in the Spanish new world should be shipped to Seville. In 1723, to accommodate the enormous growth in the tobacco industry, especially in manufacturing snuff, Spain began building the world’s biggest tobacco factory, the Royal Tobacco Factory of Seville, the most prominent such institution in Europe. Only the Spanish royal palace, El Escorial, was larger than the factory. The factory closed in the 1950s, but the building still exists. It is now the rectorate of the University of Seville.
The fictional Carmen worked there. The cigarerras earned their own income and achieved a class status of their own. Although many of the women were great beauties, they also earned reputations for their lack of chastity.
In America, tobacco was primarily used for sacred, ceremonial and health purposes for many of the Native Americans. Smoking the peace pipe was important in forming alliances between tribes and in the making of contracts.
But in Europe tobacco became a hot commercial item. Initially, it was used by the upper classes and aristocracy in the form of snuff. In Seville, at one time, more than 6,000 men and large numbers of horses were employed to grind dried tobacco into the valuable commodity. It was hard work. Then, when snuff fell out of fashion and smoking cigars became popular, the workforce switched to women hand-rolling them.
Over time, at the Royal Factory, when the diminished quality of the cigars caused market losses, they changed to making cigarettes, an item they had discovered the workers and cleaning people making from the scraps of tobacco left on the factory floor.
The opening scene in Bizet’s “Carmen” is one of the work breaks when the cigarerras, many of them gypsies, come flooding out into the plaza for some fresh air.
Carmen (Tori Franklin in the best acting performance I saw) stands out from the other cigarerras for the boldness of her interactions with the Royal Guard, stationed in the plaza to help keep peace between the throngs of women pouring out of the factory, and the crowds of men who come to interact with them. Franklin’s singing of the “Habanera” aria, one of the most famous in opera, was one of the highlights of the show. She also tells her gathered admirers that love is free and obeys no rules. Everyone is captivated by her except Don José (Wayd Odle, in the best singing performance in the opera), a corporal in the guard who initially ignores her. To get his attention she tosses him a flower. He is smitten.
Micaëla (an excellent Madeline Hamrick in my performance), a peasant girl, has come to the plaza to find Don José to deliver a letter from Don José’s mother. She also secretly loves Don José.
Back at work, Carmen gets into a fight. Don José is sent to get her. When she refuses to answer the captain’s questions, Don José is ordered to take her to prison. On the way, she entices him to let her escape and later meet up at a tavern. Don José gets arrested for his neglect.
Later, at the tavern, Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédés (Beth Stovall and Anna Young in delightful performances) entertain the guests, among them a dashing bullfighter, Escamillo (Derek Stull, in a robust performance), who sings the opera’s second most popular aria, “Toreador,” as he enters. He flirts with Carmen but gets rejected.
In later twists and turns, there are on-again-off-again relationships between Escamillo, Carmen and Don José. There’s a fight between Don José and the captain of the guard. A pair of smugglers, El Remendado (Miles Jenkins) and El Dancaïre (Brad Summers), show up with a scheme for helping Carmen and Don José get away.
Later on, they all end up back in Seville for one of Escamillo’s bullfights. Don José wants Carmen to go away with him for good. She wants to be free. In a struggle, he kills her.
When “Carmen” was first performed, it was a scandalous sensation. The opera-going public of the day saw its scintillating music and sensuous performances, as well as its focus on the behavior of lower-class people, as vulgar and unsuitable. Its premiere was met with silence.
In time, all that obviously changed. Certainly, this production was a hit. It may well be director James Marvel’s best work with UT Opera. The crisp and beautifully stylized movement patterns of the chorus as members of the guards, the cigarerras and the villagers were a joy to watch, often creating visually interesting and complicated vignettes.
The angular set design by Becca Johnson and Chandler Oppenheimer’s projections on the pairs of suspended quadrilateral screens were perfect counterpoints to Glenn Avery Breed’s well-appointed guards and the women’s frilly, feminine costumes.
Under conductor Kevin Class’ baton, the orchestra delivered Bizet’s energetic music as the auditory complement to the visuals on stage, as well as superb accompaniment for the singers.
I would love to see the whole thing again.
For more about UT Opera Theatre, as well as other University of Tennessee School of Music performances, check the website.