Since becoming artistic director of Philadelphia Ballet, Angel Corella has staged tried and true classics, incorporating ideas from productions he danced at ABT and in Europe. But for his new production of Carmen, which opens the company’s 2023-24 season, Corella can claim full choreographic credit. In 2010 the company staged choreographer Roland Petit’s one act version of Carmen; Corella’s production is a fast-paced two-act danse thriller with dimensional characters.
It is still scored to Georges Bizet’s famous opera- sans the libretto- in an expanded orchestral music from the opera and the composers ‘L’Arlesienne Suites’ with new orchestrations by Miranda Scripp and PB’s music director-conductor Beatrice Jona Affron. The story is still set in 19th century Seville, Spain about a women who refuses to be dominated by any man or surrender her lust for life.
The curtain comes up on Don Jose, an army sergeant who has been arrested for murder and contemplates his fate as he dances an anguished solo. And in the background Carmen moves in the shadows radiant in a voluminous Flamenco gown.
Suddenly guards pull the cell walls away and the story of what landed him in jail unfolds two years earlier at the Royal Cigar factory where the women are working. A group of male workers enter and they pair up for some balletic fandangos. Fernanda takes the floor with an officer who enters the scene. But when Carmen bolts onstage, in a sexy red miniskirt for her first fiery solo then starts fighting with Fernanda and pulls a knife. She is summarily arrested and is now in the custody of Don Jose who shamelessly seduces him.
After Don Jose is stripped of his rank, he hooks up with Carmen in a tender love scene unfolds with Carmen and Jose in bed in a starlit cabin. The choreography expresses passion without looking stagey or overthought, even as Corella laces in sculptural positions and lifts sequences that require precision and sensual flow.
Corella’s laces in some inventive fusion with ballet technique and Flamenco classicism, one of the key elements that sets this production apart. Flamenco has many idioms and interpretive artistry. The footwork for the ballerina en pointe is going to look very different than in flamenco. So, there was expressive flair with ballet’s port de bra here fused with Flamenco’s (braceo) physicality.
Nayara Lopes’s Carmen is earthy and mysterious, articulating everything through her fine pointe work, particularly impressive in the variations that Corella has created. Her technical artistry thrilling and characterization convincing as the hypnotic ‘femme fatale’ in pursuit of Don Jose, the General, and the Matador. Even when her hands behind her back in jail she still piques backward and pas de bourrées with smirking ease. .
Sterling Baca’ who usually cast in Princely leads, digs in with different acting chops as the severe General entranced by Carmen and is unhinged with jealousy. Yuka Iseda again brings flawless ballet technique and gorgeous partnering with Baca in her duet with Baca.
Jack Thomas’s Escamillo is full of bullring swagger, and afterward Thomas is equally convincing in his love scene with Carmen, smoking in bed just after they smoldered over the sheets. Their central duet to Bizet’s famous ‘Flower Song’ Corella giving their tryst unique phrases and intense tenderness. Lopes and Thomas drew applause in the middle of the sequence. But the passions intensify even more, (but not in a good way) when Jose barges in on them and the two men grab each other by the throat. Carmen gets between them to break it up but the fighting escalates and Jose shoots the Matador.
Corella also made the most of the corps de ballet crowd scenes, they were never background dancers. Act II opened with Jose (Soca) now on the run, and his bandits, in a rowdy ballet roundup of five men led by – Federico D’Ortenzi, Isaac Hollis, Nicholas Patterson, Javier Rivet and Jack Sprance doing in high flying tours en’ la air. The group all launching into grand pirouettes at once to the sheer delight of this audience.
The corps de ballet women also quicksilver pointe work and naturalized characterizations in the crowd scenes. In the second act the moving in a sculptured grouping with vermillion fans dramatically posed captivated in this too brief mise-en-scene. Soloists Alexandra Heier and So Jung Shin standouts as Carmen’s friends.
The costumes are a trove of authentic garments, from the high jumpers on the men to the bolero shrugs, Corella has been acquiring period garments, vintage flamenco, and matador fabrics on his visits to Spain over the year. The designs restored or reproduced in the company’s costume department. It is a dazzling collection of folkloric, flamenco, toreador, military dancewear. Carmen’s ‘femme fatale’ skivvies and Flamenco gowns are indeed a Seville line of beauty. Adding to the allure is Nick Kolin’s lighting designs with blazing hues in crowd scenes and midnight shadows in the jail and bedrooms, all conjuring beautiful stage pictures on the Academy stage.
Conductor Beatrice Jona Affron and Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra gave a lush performance of this expanded score. From the opening fanfares to Carmen’s sultry ‘Habanero’ theme to the ‘Flower Song,’ which is an aria for the lead tenor in the opera, now transcribed for cello, with PB’s principal cellist Jennie Lorenzo penetrating the opera house..
Carmen at the Academy of Music, Broad & Locust St. Philadelphia PA through October 15. Go to www.philadelphiaballet.org for tickets