Bizet's "Carmen" is one of my favorite operas, and Opera Santa Barbara's staging is first rate. The sets and costumes are simple, adequate, and set the time and place. The cast is strong from top to bottom, and the production has some interesting touches that set it off from the rest.

When the cigarette girls appear they're super sexy and all smoking. It's interesting in our society that frowns on smoking, and they use it like in old black and white movies from the 1930's and '40s. The choral work is also remarkable, whether it's a large ensemble or the trios and quartets, it's tight everywhere. Chorus Master JoAnne Wasserman gets superb results across the board.

Ross Neill's Don Jose is more introspective and tragic than most. It's like he's being swept against his will by irresistible forces, and he's aware of it always. The only time he's happy at all is when Micalea brings him the letter from his mother at the beginning. Barbara Davis is a sweet-voiced Micaela, and their duet is absolutely gorgeous. When she runs off and Jose says he'll marry her, true happiness, love, and joy radiates from him. That's the last time, though.

Layna Chianakas is a steamy, fiery Carmen. She's a predator and however much he wants to leave, Jose's no match. He knows he's being dragged down, but he can't help himself. When she gives him the flower she's sultry and sexy. Then just as she's getting ready to give it to him, she screams and throws it at his feet.

The scene at Lilas Pastia's is festive, with a big crowd that's having a great time. This is another of those scenes where it just seems like all these people shouldn't fit on the Lobero stage, but they do, and they're always moved around effortlessly. Carmen never does jump up on a table for her dance, but after everyone leaves and Jose shows up, she does a slow, sultry bump and grind for him while he fondles her as she moves. It's almost a relief for him when the bugles blow and he has to leave. Carmen changes from seductress to tiger, though, they fight, and he never does make it out. When Zuniga shows up, he can't go back, and you can feel his spirit break in his general shrug. All of these singing actors have outstanding body language, but none are better than Jose.

Hector Vasquez is a swaggering Escamillo with a permanent smirk in his face. Arrogance oozes out of every pore. As soon as he appears you can feel defeat creep into Jose. Carmen senses her fate as they fight.

In the mountains, Jose stares out into space and thinks of the honest man he used to be. His mood ranges from pensive to downright ugly and viscous. Carmen draws the card of death, then it's repeated several times. Jose grabs her and drags her down by her hair as she screams and he says "You will submit to your destiny."

The backdrop for the final act is blood red outside the bullring. It's festive as the crowd files in. There's a sizzling flamenco danced by Aram Barsamian and choreographer Linda Vega. Carmen and Escamillo make their grand entrance. In an interesting touch, she's dressed head to toe in a white wedding gown. When Mercedes and Frasqita warn her of Jose, they're in black gowns with a red rose in the head piece. The stark contrast, coupled with the blood red background really sets the mood for the finale.

Jose is all disheveled and half mad. He's like a little kid as he pleads with Carmen to love him, and it's like he thinks she will. His facial expressions are really spectacular. At the end, he realizes she loves Escamillo as the crowd cheers. The madness takes over, his face twitches wildly, and he kills her.

Valery Ryvkin led the Opera Santa Barbara Orchestra in this outstanding production of "Carmen" at the Lobero Theater.

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