WHY IS BEING ignored so attractive? Why does someone not wanting us make us want them all the more? You know it's true. Georges Bizet knew it, and, boy, does Stephanie Blythe know it in her brilliant performance as Carmen in Seattle Opera's new production (McCaw Hall, ends Sat., Jan. 30, 206-389-7676).
At her entrance, this Carmen radiates indifference clear to the back row. (She sings her "Habanera" to herself as she washes her stockings.) We're hooked as inescapably as Don José, the soldier she decides to toy with. Musically, Blythe is just as insouciant, singing with the sort of unstudied spontaneity only achievable through complete vocal command and thoughtful preparation. Her timbre is silky and sonorous over its full rangenot that a dash of earthiness or throatiness now and then isn't welcome in a Carmen. Blythe gives us pearls without the speck of grit inside.
She and her José, Paul Charles Clarke, play off each other splendidly. The speed with which characters fall in and out of love is a running gag in opera, but these two make their mood swings not only plausible but dramatically pointedas her contempt deepens, his obsession mounts. By the end, José has degenerated from a Boy Scout, all about Mom and keeping his buttons shiny, to a haggard wreck. The role is one long, torturously slow mad scene, and Clarke is first-rate, gradually adding more sob and throb to his light, virile tenor.
Doing her best to keep José on the straight and narrow is Micaëla, the demure hometown girl who pops up now and then to manipulate him, in her own way, as calculatedly as Carmen does. Saturday's Micaëla was Marie Plette, whose rich, glinting soprano carries no hint of girlish innocence, though she brings the character to vivid life nevertheless. Roberto Salvatori makes a dashing Escamillo, the toreador for whom Carmen dumps José. His voice is seductive, if not large in loud passages, he sounded cautious but never strained. The baseline requirement for an Escamillo is to make the audience see what Carmen sees in him, and this he did.
IN AN UNINTENDED parallel, just as José mentally implodes, so the staging here becomes gradually less effective. Act I, a public square in Seville, offers quaint painted backdrops and picturesque costumes, freshly and intelligently traditionalist. Act II transposes Lillas Pastia's tavern, the hangout of Carmen and her gang, into the backstage of a burned-out theatera startling effect from designer Allen Moyer that has the audience looking into a sort of Dorian Gray mirror image of McCaw Hall itself. Drawing parallels between gypsies and raffish show folk makes sense, but director James Robinson turns a good idea into a bad one by using the same theater set for Acts III (traditionally a mountain pass) and IV (back in Seville, outside the bullring). It's weird to watch Act I in a Gilbert-and- Sullivan set, then have the rest of the production go deconstructionist.
Robinson's opening of Act IV, Escamillo's pre-bullfight parade with a lace-bedecked Carmen on his arm, is stylized and dreamlike, too, as if inside José's head. Yet Bizet's plan for the finale, one of opera's all-time great strokes of theatrical genius, is all too cruelly real world: José confronts Carmen outside the bullring as Escamillo triumphs inside, two dances of death with a celebratory offstage chorus making an ironic backdrop for the onstage tragedy. It's the last place you need another layer of directorial conceptualization, but Blythe and Clarke command our attention anyway. At the climax, unable to renew Carmen's passion, José whips out a small straight razor. Blythe's Carmen laughs at his pathetic little tool, and that, finally, is the last straw.