If you’ve ever been to the opera, you’ve probably seen “Carmen.” Georges Bizet’s 1875 masterpiece is one of the most frequently performed operas of all time.
But chances are you’ve never seen – or heard – “Carmen” sung in Spanish, which is how Martinez Opera Contra Costa will present it in a new production March 12 at the Alhambra Performing Arts Center.
According to executive director Maria Billingsley, no one has ever done “Carmen” this way before. She’s billing the production as its “premiere concert version.”
Now, it seems likely that someone, somewhere in the 136-year history of “Carmen” must have tried it in Spanish. But Billingsley and director Cesare Curzi, who have done extensive research into the opera’s history and performance practice, are betting that their “Carmen” sung in Spanish is a first.
No matter how you sing it, “Carmen” remains a quintessentially French opera. Bizet – who never set foot in Spain – premiered the score in Paris in March 1875. It wasn’t exactly a hit. A few critics liked it, but most predicted it would never have wide appeal for audiences. Three months later, Bizet died without knowing that “Carmen” would become one of the most popular operas ever written. Today it’s performed around the world, and even people who don’t know the score can hum its best-known melodies.
So why sing it in Spanish? According to Billingsley, the idea makes perfect sense. For one thing, “Carmen” is set in Spain. It’s about a Spanish gypsy who seduces a young military officer (and, of course, leads him to ruin), with scenes that move from the streets of Seville to the mountains of the Spanish countryside.
Mostly, though, Billingsley thinks the opera world is opening up, searching for new ways to deliver performances and attract first-time audiences.
“One of the most exciting things about being a producer,” she says, “is having the ability to mount a production that could send shock waves into the opera world.”
The March 12 performance will strive for authenticity, says Billingsley, with flamenco dancers, a children’s chorus and a well-trained cast under the direction of Curzi. Mezzo-soprano Cybele Gouverneur stars in the title role. Gouverneur, a native of Venezuela, recently sang the role in Opera San Jose’s 25th anniversary production of “Carmen.” Also in the cast are tenor Antonio Nagore (Don Jose), baritone Adam Mezo (Escamillo) and soprano Ariel Pisturino (Micaela).
So whether you’re on intimate terms with “Carmen” or seeing it for the first time, Martinez Opera’s production will offer a new experience. And no matter what language they’re singing, Bizet’s music is always a thrill.
"Carmen" plays March 12 at Alhambra Performing Arts Center, 150 E Street in Martinez. Doors open at 6 p.m., performance at 7 p.m. Tickets are $47 online, $65 at the door. Visit www.mtzo.com for more details.