By CB Adams

“Carmen” is no stranger to controversy. As far back as its premiere in 1875, audiences and reviewers were put off by the opera’s depiction of the lifestyles of commoners and bohemians, and their supposed immorality and lawlessness – not to mention the onstage death of Carmen herself. Flash forward to Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s 47th season opener, “Carmen,” at the Browning Theatre in the Loretto-Hilton Center, and there may be a bit of operatic controversy afoot as well.

That’s because Director Rodula Gaitanou has updated the setting and Carmen herself to appeal to more modern sensibilities. Gaitanou has moved the mid-19th century Spanish setting to the 1950s and, correspondingly, uniformed the original army into Franco’s Guardia Civil. 

But it is Carmen herself, initially seen dragging a bloody bull’s head across the stage, who is distinctly reimagined in OTSL’s production. Carmen is often presented as a stereotypical, exotic, Spanish seductress – as hot as the “Habanera” she sings early in the opera. Not so in this production. Gaitanou provides a headstrong, independent Carmen – one that doesn’t need to prove her ability to turn a man’s heart and head with a flashy red dress, a provocative sashay or even stiletto heels. The audience is challenged to accept Carmen’s ability to inspire the men around her, as well as to witness her fatal attraction to the ideals captured in her final duet with Don José: “But whether I live or die / No! No! No! I will not give in.”

That idealistic inflexibility leads, even in this interpretation, to her inevitable demise.

Yunuet Laguna. Photo by Eric Woolsey

Gaitanou’s Carmen, as sung by Sarah Mesko, is more formidable, though no less unforgettable. She even rides through some scenes on a motorcycle, like a sort of Daughter of Anarchy. In other scenes, she sports a matador jacket, a visual metaphor for a woman who – ultimately fatally – runs and fights with men rather than the bulls.

To spend more time explaining Gaitanou’s artistic choices for the presentation of Carmen is to risk providing a lopsided review of the rest of this fine production. To Gaitanou’s credit, this production elevates and balances the role of Carmen with her love interests, Don José, sung by Adam Smith, and Escamillo, sung by Christian Pursell. Both are strong, masculine and believable – and Mesko’s Carmen is up to the challenges posed by these two males.

The standout performance among this strong cast is provided by Yunuet Laguna as Micaëla. Clad throughout as a dowdy, frumpy (and even pregnant by Don José) village maiden, Laguna’s “Je dis que rien m’epouvante” shines forth as a potent, if plaintive, Jiminy Cricket counterpoint to Carmen’s shinier persona. That a supporting role can rise to such showstopping prominence proves this production’s overall high quality and integrity.

Under the baton of Daniela Candillari, Opera Theatre’s new principal conductor, the Saint Louis Symphony impressively projects as if it were a larger ensemble of musicians and more than does justice to Bizet’s score.

Also noteworthy is the subtle-yet-profound sets and costumes by Cordelia Chisholm and lighting by Christopher Akerlind. “Carmen” is often associated with a fiery red and other brash, bullfighty colors. In contrast, this production evokes a Spain dusted in a drab desert palette, which is perfect for the most important splash of red at Carmen’s culminating death scene.

Opera Theatre’s “Carmen” continues at 7:30 p.m. on Jun 8, 12, 16, and 25 and at 12:30 p.m. on Jun 4 and 22. For more information on the 2022 Festival Season or for tickets, visit:

The ensemble of “Carmen.” Photo by Eric Woolsey.

By CB AdamsContributing Writer

Opera Theatre’s riveting production of Claudio Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea brings to mind
some dubious advice from philosopher-cum-mob boss Tony Soprano, “When you’re
married, you’ll understand the importance of fresh produce.”

The green grocer in Poppea is none other than the real-life Roman leader Nerone (nee Nero), portrayed with unerring sleaze, swagger and callous Machiavellian machismo by tenor Benton Ryan. At its most reductive, Poppea is a “love” triangle set within a palace drama.  Nerone’s desire to discard his wife, Ottavia, (played with perfect, doomed impotence by Sarah Mesko) into the compost heap sets in motion the story’s drama. But, as the title implies, this isn’t really his story. It belongs to his paramour and hot potato, Poppea, played by the excellent Emily Fons.

Poppea shares much with Carmela Soprano who famously
quipped, “…It’s a multiple choice thing with you. ‘Cause I can’t tell if you’re
old-fashioned, you’re paranoid or just a f**cking asshole.” Except, for Poppea,
those question are rhetorical. Her theme song would not be Tina Turner’s “I
Might Have Been Queen.” Fons’s Poppea, we realize early on, will be queen. Just get her to the
coronation on time.

 The Sopranos operatically limned the complexities of love/lust,
power/vulnerability, allegiance/betrayal and life/death. Yet, as fresh as those
storylines appeared, they were really just modern manifestations of ageless Big
Themes – as Poppea aptly
demonstrates. To provide some genealogical operatic perspective, Poppea was first performed in the
Teatrro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1643 for the Carnival season.

And therein lies the brilliance of OTSL’s current
production: it’s a classic story still capable of captivating and surprising a
modern audience with its ambitious and equally modern Go Big Or Go Home attitude
– when presented this well. If this sounds hyperbolic, then consider the chorus
of gasps that erupted from the audience during the knifing to death of a
character (no spoilers, here). That was proof enough that OTSL’s casting,
direction and design all work seamlessly to achieve an emotionally satisfying,
multi-layered, epiphanic experience.

Unlike its namesake, OTSL’s Poppea, directed by Tim Albery by way of England’s North Opera
(2014), is a perfect marriage in toto.
Albery and set/costume designer Hannah Clark give this age-old tale a more
modern look, setting it in the near past with a sheen that is part mob movie,
part French New Wave and part Mad Men.
It draws upon talents both wide and deep, top to bottom, to achieve its

Photo by Eric WoolseyThe Leads: Part
of the magic of the elevated, high-art opera theater experience is its
potential to entice the audience to suspend its disbelief. Achieving that
alchemy is often more aspirational than actual. OTSL’s Poppea achieves that potential, with Fons, Ryan and Mesko being the
highest-profile examples. Individually they inhabited their roles and collectively
interacted with assured chemistry . Mezzo-soprano Fons nailed the voice,
mannerisms and confidence to turn Poppea from mere conniving character to
queen. Benton, Poppea’s running mate (whether at her side, trailing behind or
just sniffing around) was engaging as a man of great, misguided, misused power.
To his credit, his portrayal – more than once – begged for cries of, “You
dumbstick, don’t do it!” Mesko as Ottavia was no wet dishrag. As a character,
Ottavia is outnumbered and outgunned, but Mesko’s performance garnered audience
sympathy and support for her Sisyphean efforts to save her marriage, status and

Supporting Actors:
Poppea is a rich, multi-layered story
that relies on a large cast. The leads in OTSL’s production were joined by
equally strong supporting performances, including some roles for Richard Gaddes
Festival Artists and Gerdine Young Artists.

As the philosopher Seneca, David Pittsinger’s deep baritone provided
a beautiful gravitas to his efforts to counsel and guide his pupil, Nerone. His
distinctive voice exemplifies another strength of this production – you could
close your eyes and still distinguish the various characters. Tom Scott-Cowell,
a countertenor, was a delight to witness as he pretzeled his desperate character
from jilted lover to cross-dressing assassin.

As if the human machinations weren’t enough, Monteverdi also
threw in some meddling gods, which Albery used to open the opera (even before
it officially starts) by wandering around the set, as if waiting for the party
to get started. Mezzo-soprano Michael was a delightfully puckish, androgynous
and Babe Ruth-ish Amore competing with a weary Virtu, played by Jennifer
Aylmer, and latex-gloved Fortuna, played by Sydney Baedke.

Set and Lighting:
Under Hannah Clark’s design, not an inch of the thrust stage was wasted in this
production that balanced a steam-punk industrial vibe with the beautify period instruments
of the musicians flanking each side. Overhead hung three mid-century modern
chandeliers. Shiny, verdigris back walls were reminiscent of an old natatorium
(apt, for this is a world under water), complete with a ladder used to good
effect by the gods to “ascend” above the action.

In contrast, the walls were punctured by a corrugated sliding
door and another that looked it was stolen from an abandoned meat locker. The
set design also made clever use of a rolling table for feasting, lovemaking, dancing,
peacocking, escaping and, ultimately, as a place to stack the bodies (you stab
‘em, we slab ‘em). Despite these seeming visual incongruities, the set and
design work cohesively with the other elements of this interpretation.

Music: Adding to
the unconventional presentation, Albery elevates the musicians to perform in two
string quartets seated on either side of the stage. The musicians were dressed
mostly in formal ballroom attire, adding a graceful note as they played on violins,
two harpsichords and a variety of period instruments, including Baroque harp, viola
da gamba and theorbos.  

In a debate with the other gods, Amore asserts that love
will win the day. In Poppea, love – blind
love, anyway – does seem to win the day, as Nerone and Poppea finish one of opera’s
great duets and look hesitantly toward an unknowable future. This moment calls
to mind something Dr. Melfi says to Tony Soprano, “Sometimes, it’s important to
give people the illusion of being in control.”

 “The Coronation of Poppea” plays at the Loretto-Hilton Center through June 30. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit