Defiant, passionate, independent women who also happen to be beautiful have been scorned and scandalized throughout history.
When Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen" opened in 1875 at the Opera-Comique in Paris, it received a lukewarm reception from critics. Audiences at the respectable opera house considered the story shocking, with its blatant sexuality and frank depiction of gypsy life.
But times and sensibilities have changed. When San Diego Opera brings Bizet's most famous work to the Civic Theatre stage beginning March 25, the audience will have seen far more shocking stories on the nightly news.
Carmen is a beautiful gypsy who is careless with her love. She is pursued by many men, but tempts the soldier Don Jose away from his girlfriend. Once he has given up everything for her, Carmen discards him for an arrogant bullfighter who ignites her passion. But Don Jose's obsession threatens to destroy them all.
The character of Carmen is often depicted as a wanton seductress. But that's not the way that Marina Domashenko, who plays the title role in San Diego Opera's production, sees her.
"I hate when singers play her as a vulgar woman. She's free, but she's not vulgar," says Domashenko. "For me she is a very young, fresh, beautiful woman. I think this is the most important thing -- she is free and natural, like the wind or the rain.
"It's not about being bad or good. Otherwise, it's very simple, not interesting at all. I think she's little bit more complex."
Still, Domashenko tells the story of a student dress rehearsal for "Carmen" at the San Francisco Opera. At the end, when Don Jose catches up with Carmen and her rejection sends him into a blind rage, many of the youngsters cried out, "Kill her!"
"You have to be ready for a reaction like that," said Domashenko with good humor. "I think the problem with Carmen is when she loves, she loves in this moment. So if she loves you now, she loves you for all her life. But after 10 minutes, or maybe 10 days, life changes -- and she changes her mind."
At 32 and just seven years into her opera career, Siberian-born mezzo-soprano Domashenko now finds herself in demand at major opera houses around the globe. She graduated with honors from the Kemerovo Arts Institute as a conductor and pianist -- a talent that allows her to save money by playing her own accompaniment, she quips. Domashenko considered piano her calling, until a voice teacher told her she had a gift and had to use it.
In 1998 she made her European debut in Prague as Olga in "Eugene Onegin." Her American debut came in 2000 with the San Francisco Opera as Delilah in a concert performance of "Samson and Delilah" with Placido Domingo. Earlier this year she was awarded a Grammy for best opera recording for her participation in Colin Davis' recording of "Falstaff."
This production marks the San Diego Opera debut for Domashenko. But she is no stranger to Carmen -- it's become one of her signature roles. She has performed Carmen to critical acclaim in more than 100 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Cagliari, Arena di Verona, Berlin and Vienna, in addition to a film by Franco Zeffirelli and a complete CD recording opposite Andrea Bocelli.
"I think I'm a master of Carmen. I can feel every millimeter of her character," Domashenko said.
The San Diego Opera cast includes Puerto Rican tenor Cesar Hernandez as Don Jose, American baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as the bullfighter Escamillo, and American soprano Barbara Divis as Micaela. Tony Award-winner Michael Yeargan designed the production in a traditional style with bold colors and a Spanish flair.
That Spanish flair requires some multitasking -- dancing in addition to the singing and acting. For Domashenko it's important to exhibit all these elements in her performance, alluding to a movement in opera today that approaches characters in a more holistic manner.
"I don't like to see just singers singing. This doesn't work anymore; it's a very old style," she said. "I prefer to move on the stage, to play castanets, sing, dance, to be Carmen. Because if someone in the orchestra is playing the castanets, you're not going to believe this woman."
It's more than likely audiences will believe Domashenko's Carmen. Her recent performance of Carmen at the San Francisco Opera was called "light, dark, free, gay, tragic and taunting in all the right places" by Opera News critic David Gregson.
Domashenko just might give defiant, passionate, independent women everywhere a good name.
"It's a very rich role because you get to play tragedy, humor, happiness, everything," she said. "You cannot find another role like that. Other than Violetta (from Verdi's "La Traviata"), I can't think of a richer role."
PROGRAM: Bizet's "Carmen"
Organization: San Diego Opera
Dates and show times: March 25 and 28 at 7 p.m., March 31 at 8 p.m., April 2 at 2 p.m., April 5 at 7 p.m.
Location: San Diego Civic Theatre, Third Avenue and B Street, downtown
More information: (619) 533-7000, www.sdopera.com
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