Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Carmen"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


"CARMEN"

by George Bizet
libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy,
based on the novel by Prosper Merimee
music adaptation by Bradley Greenwald
directed by Dominique Serrand
musical direction by Barbara Brooks
surtitles by Steven Epp

Carmen … Christina Baldwin (mezzo-soprano)
Don José … Bradley Greenwald (baritone)
Micaëla; Frasquita … Jennifer Baldwin Peden (soprano)
Escamillo; Soldier … Bill Murray (baritone)
Zuniga; The Guide … Thomas Derrah (non-singing roles)
Dancaire; Soldier … Justin Madel (tenor)
Remendado; Soldier … Kelvin Chan (baritone)
Mercedes; Cigarette Girl … Corissa White (mezzo-soprano)
Frasquita (Card Trio/Morceau); Cigarette Girl … Momoko Tanno (soprano)
Pastia; Cigarette Girl … Madeline Cieslak (soprano)
Morales … Dieter Bierbrauer (baritone)
Child … Fred Metzer (soprano)

Chorus:
Donna Bareket (mezzo-soprano); Neal Feal Ferreira (tenor);
Hayley Thompson-King (mezzo-soprano); Robert Shutter (baritone);
Christine Teeters (soprano)

Musical Director; Piano … Barbara Brooks
Piano … Kathy Kraulik

Over a decade ago, dancer-choreographer Mark Morris unveiled his ballet THE HARD NUT, a cutting-edge version of Tchaikovsky’s THE NUTCRACKER, which intended to strip away all the sugar-plummery and return the piece to the original Hoffmann darkness --- once you got past the bizarro costumes and cross-gendering the production turned out to be conventional enough, underneath. The same assessment can be leveled at CARMEN sung in French at the A.R.T. in association with the Theatre de la Jeune Lune: if you can overlook such visuals as a grey cinderblock setting posing as sunny Spain, a Carmen more witch than temptress and a tomboy Micaëla who keeps barging in when least expected, you will be rewarded with a ravishingly sung performance of George Bizet’s ever-popular opera about the doomed love between a gypsy and a soldier --- and it comes with an intermission, too!

Adaptor/baritone Bradley Greenwald has pared down CARMEN’s orchestrations to two pianos and uses the original dialogue instead of the recitatives added after Mr. Bizet’s death. The word spoken nicely flows into the word sung (the dialogue, culled from Prosper Merimee’s novel is also more character-revealing) and Barbara Brooks and Kathy Kraulik’s accompaniment is so accomplished, so layered, that only in the “Habanera” did I yearn for a fuller sound --- a piano simply cannot seduce the way a rich, dark string section can. There are questionable touches throughout from director Dominique Serrand beginning with the soldiers and urchins choruses being switched around and concluding with Don José taking a bullet to the brain; what goes against the opera’s grain is the production’s overriding coldness: if ever there was an opera composed of sunshine and color, it is CARMEN with its village square, its mountains, its bullfighting and its gypsy high-spirits --- Carmen and Don José are embroiled in l’amour fou but the world around them is jolly and winking as is much of Mr. Bizet’s score. The A.R.T. production unfolds in the familiar house-style (i.e. cerebral and at arm’s length with the costumes, sets and lights on the downbeat); there are admirable moments such as the shadow-play on the walls or when the ensemble executes some dance steps with Fosse-like precision but admiration is not the same as pure-and-simple excitement and CARMEN is Opera 101. The cheers and applause over Lyric Stage’s URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL would be wildly out of place, here.

Still, the A.R.T. production is a triumph of singing --- what pleasure to hear these fresh, young voices in full throttle! (The choruses are particularly excellent.) But opera, after all, is theatre not concert and aside from Thomas Derrah in two non-singing roles (one of them, strayed in from SUNSET BOULEVARD), none of the leads catch fire in their characterizations. Carmen is as multi-faceted as Cleopatra or Blanche duBois, darting from persona to persona --- her emotional center is thought to be the Card Scene where she stops role-playing for once and takes stock of her fate; her growing acceptance of death combined with her love of freedom no matter the cost lend her a heroic stature in the end. Christina Baldwin’s portrayal is a collection of mood-swings, mostly on the grim side (to kiss this Carmen is to risk getting your face eaten off your skull) --- to compare her gypsy to Bill Murray’s lightweight but feline Escamillo shows how much Ms. Baldwin rambles about the stage, devoid of gypsy grace or magnetism and, not surprisingly, her singing voice is strong and tireless but monochromatic. Mr. Greenwald has gently transcribed Don José’s tenor down to fit his baritone and sings with an impressive blend of ringing top (silver) and full-bodied middle register (gold) though his facial expressions often betray his efforts. Don José need not be played as a mother-ridden psychopath --- he comes from the Basque country where the men dominate their women --- Mr. Greenwald’s José, however, is more clown than lover with shoulders hunched and eyes almost crossed from gullibility; in the final scene he turns goofy rather than threatening. (Moral: Don’t date nerds --- they obsess.) Mr. Merimee’s novel has no Micaëla; in the opera she counterbalances Christianity against paganism and shows a peasant’s wit towards the soldiers, tenderness and spunk with José and courage against Carmen and the smugglers. Jennifer Baldwin Peden plays both Micaëla and Frasquita so she is never away for long (she crashes the Card Scene and Carmen’s death, most annoyingly, damn it!); once I got used to her singing voice I found it fascinating with its clapper-like tones issuing from a fireman’s alarm, so French-like in its sounds. Were she a comedienne I would say that Ms. Peden is sending up continental chanteuses but she seems quite serious in her gestures and declamation; her Micaëla is hardly a sweet, simple girl from Don José’s village --- Ms. Baldwin’s Carmen may be in a perpetual bad mood but is the better company.

Steven Epp’s surtitles are economic and to the point. When things grows tense, phrases come at you like headlines; for gentler emotions the words fade in from left to right --- whenever love was confessed I half-expected surtitles ringed with hearts and flowers but, no, that would have been silly and this is one CARMEN where frivolity need not apply. But your ears, at least, will go home happy.

"Carmen" (3 September-8 October)
AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE (A.R.T.)
64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (617) 547-8300

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