Where the Traviata the week before was mostly spectacle, the Carmen that played on Thursday at the Baths of Caracalla proved surprisingly substantial. The Teatro dell’Opera di Roma’s revival of Georges Bizet’s masterpiece was an invigorating experience, both dramatically and musically.

Let me get my reservations out of the way up front, however: it seems no stage is safe from U.S. politics. In a production that premiered last June, the Argentine director Valentina Carrasco uses the immigration crisis on the U.S.–Mexican border as her inspiration, albeit projected slightly into the future, as the twenty-foot-high corrugated aluminum “wall” that backs the stage sports a sun-faded decal reading “Border 2020.”

The bullfight pageantry of Act IV is brilliantly reimagined as a Día de los Muertos parade, complete with massive calavera floats.

Bringing a political angle to a dramatic interpretation is nothing new, but doing so makes little sense as a momentary gesture. The latter acts together make up quite a compelling picture of a parallel society shaped by poverty, which is of course what Bizet and his librettists gave us to begin with: Lillas Pastia’s seedy tavern is transformed into the last strip club before the border. Act III uses subtle, clever projections to make the red brick of the Baths resemble the towering sandstone canyons of the American Southwest. The bullfight pageantry of Act IV is brilliantly reimagined as a Día de los Muertos parade, complete with massive calavera floats.

The Día de los Muertos parade in Valentina Carrasco’s staging of  Carmen. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama.

The first act has an entirely different feel: the border patrol officers (Spanish dragoons in the original libretto) are immediately seen tearing children away from their parents, dragging everyone off into separate trucks, all in pantomime during the overture. This is an aggressive opening gambit, clearly meant to disturb the viewer, but thereafter Carrasco backs off, her conceit mostly serving to anchor time and place. Rather than leaving a lasting image, it seems at odds with the rest of the production—why issue the challenge at all, if you’re going to chicken out?

Even with that complaint, this was actually one of the more enjoyable Carmens I’ve ever seen, thanks in no small part to outstanding performances from the entire cast. The two leads, the Georgian mezzo Ketevan Kemoklidze in the title role and the Basque tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi as Don José, were transfixing together.

Kemoklidze owns a serious, viscous mezzo-soprano, the sort of voice with smoldering power at both its bottom and its top. It’s admittedly a little wobbly in the middle, made up for by a pitch-dark color and excellent dramatic instincts. The “Séguedille” was her best performance of the night, showing off the more focused parts of her voice as well as her sense of musical flair.

Escamillo, the glamorous bullfighter, is more or less a one-number role, too, but you sort of expect that from the bass-baritone in an opéra comique. Simón Orfila was marvelous, bringing a cavernous voice and dramatic swagger to the “Toréador Song.”A good Don José can be hard to come by: for a tenor lead, he has relatively little noteworthy music aside from his big protestation of love in Act II, “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” a superb aria. But other than that (and a lovely but overly long duet with Micaëla in Act I), this is an acting-heavy role, and not necessarily a first choice for golden-voiced superstars. Gorrotxategi’s rendition of the “Flower Song” was one of the best I’ve heard, sung with gleaming tone and arched phrases.

I’ve always felt a little bad for Micaëla, the forgotten fiancée who keeps showing up at the worst moments to bring Don José letters from Mom. She’s the flattest of the main characters, mostly serving as a dramatic foil to make Carmen seem even more hot-blooded. Yet her one aria, with its pristine little melody, is some of the most human music in the opera: pure, earnest yearning in stark opposition to the electric bravado that makes up the rest of the piece. Louise Kwong was exquisite in the role, singing her timid prayer with a bird-like soprano, cool, clear, and quick.

The conductor Ryan McAdams proved, in contrast to last week’s Traviata, that hearing the pit through speakers doesn’t have to be a chore. Under his direction, the orchestra roared through a scorching account of the score: there was rich detail in McAdams’s reading as he used texture and sharp gesture to create a vivid musical atmosphere. And though his heavy tempos threatened to make it a four-hour evening, the creeping pace at the start of Act II made the dizzying accelerando of the “Triangle Dance” thrill all the more.

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