A “Boogie Nights” Carmen After Franco’s death, an intoxicating era of freedom
In the fall of 1975, Spain was released from 40 years of oppressive rule by the dictator Francisco Franco. There was a great deal of upheaval as Spanish society came to terms with its re-entry into the modern world. The ascent of King Juan Carlos brought relaxed restrictions on travel, trade, standards of morality and artistic freedom. This was thrilling to some and dangerous to others. There were protests and an increase in crime and acts of terrorism, as many in the population acted out and elements of the far right fought to retain the old ways. But there was also a massive outpouring of relief and joy and exhilaration, as an energized people celebrated their newfound liberty.
Setting our production in and around Seville 40 years ago is a perfect fit for this beautiful, powerful and harrowing opera. The mid-1970s was the heart of the sexual revolution, when many in the western world were embracing romantic freedoms. Spain, however, was still very much stuck in an era of repressive misogyny. Carmen herself perfectly personifies the new modern woman, determined to live and love on her own terms. Meanwhile, the military and police struggled with losing their grip on civil order. This is paralleled by Don José’s spiral into derangement, brought on by his inability to accept the freedom of the woman he professes to love.
Bullfighting was hugely popular at that time and smoking was ubiquitous; both important aspects of the narrative. Smuggling was also an enormous part of the underground economy. It was an era of wonderfully colorful fashion, of course, and the clothing styles are ideally suited for the balance of musical styles in the opera. Much of the piece’s great popularity stems from its combination of light opéra-comique and dark verismo. Thanks to the intense, often gritty films of that era, such as “The French Connection” and “Taxi Driver” and more recently, “American Hustle” and “Boogie Nights,” we think of the aesthetic of the 1970s in the same way, as a uniquely powerful combination of kitschy, sexy and dangerous.
The scenic elements of our production embrace the flavor of the era as well. The modernity is stylized, with clean and spare lines to emphasize the psychology of the piece. There are tall towers and curved walls, suggestive of a prison coming apart; the clash of femininity and machismo; the push and pull of order and freedom. As the story progresses, a rough natural form emerges into view, hinting at the unpredictable danger to come. And always there is color, with bold statements in deep reds, blues and yellows.
There is a warm nostalgia for the 1970s these days; it seems to have been a time of energy, excitement and possibility. In Spain, particularly, newfound notions of personal freedom were exhilarating, intoxicating and often scary. Just as in the opera itself, some people embraced their freedom, some resisted it, and others – tragically – were destroyed.