Friday, August 1, 2008

The Tragedy that is The Tragedy of Carmen

Boston Midsummer Opera has taken a bold step in their first fully-staged production of the company's short three-year existence with Peter Brook's interpretation of the Bizet classic Carmen. An 80-minute, minimalistic production, The Tragedy of Carmen is presented with four singers and three actors thus essentializing the story and simplifying the opus to a comparable "highlights from..." recording. To opera fans, this is heretic. To theatre fans, this is cutting edge. Unfortunately for the Bostonians who spend upwards of $50 per ticket on this amateurish production, this is a waste of valuable time and money.

The main problem with BMO's Carmen is the lack of a director with the skill and story-telling ability of Peter Brook. BMO has earned a reputation of featuring young singers (primarily finalists in the National Council Auditions for the Met) in minimally staged productions, one could say staged-singings of operas. As enthusiastic as I am about nurturing new talent and removing the cultural stigmas associated with opera, it is hard for me to put my support behind this production mostly because it fails to bridge the opera/theatre divide the way the original production certainly intended and accomplished. Opera is an artform of the ear, while theatre appeals primarily to the visual. This production got lost somewhere in the middle.

Assessing the show theatrically, I would first praise the scenic designer, Jeremy Barnett, who created an interesting and serviceable unit set from wooden palettes and props. Although there were difficulties with the rake of the stage and limited entranceways, the overall effect created a Brechtian minimalism well-suited to the show. Likewise, there were some beautifully theatrical, i.e. symbolic moments such as the pouring of sand to represent a lover's trysting site, Carmen's dance with the tambourine before Don Jose, and Escamillo shaving in preparation for his ultimate battle in the bullring. What did not work theatrically was the acting. I am willing to forgive the melodramatic performances of the opera singers given the demands of their art; however, the three supporting actors were simply amateurish. Their role in the show was completely derided by the lack of direction and motivation in their moments on stage. I believe this was a case of an opera director not knowing how to cast & direct actors as opposed to casting singers.

Assessing the show operatically, the best moments of the production were when the singers were delivering arias simply facing out, which reaffirms my belief that a theatre director was needed for this particular production. Highlights include Don Jose's 11th hour number and Carmen's aria about the cards. What really brought the house down was Leslie Ann Bradley's depiction of Micaela. Her perfect diction and heavenly voice made her aria, "Je dis que rien" absolutely sublime planting a smile across my lip and a brava from my throat. This was one of those performances that made the price of my ticket worth while. True, Stephanie Chigas' Carmen exuded a wanton sexuality that is often lost on many accomplished singers' portrayals, yet her vocals need a god ten-years in training before truly conquering the role. Darren Anderson as Don Jose and Lee Gregory as Escamillo displayed virtuoso in their upper and lower registers, respectively, but gave otherwise mediocre performances - both vocally and theatrically. All three of the actors cast in the show were so misused and under-rehearsed, it is hardly worth mentioning.

I hope that Boston Midsummer Opera will continue in their mission to support young talent. However, I hope this mission can also extend to hiring young directors who understand the importance of theatricality as well as opera bravura. This production reaffirms my belief that it is easier to bring theatre artists into opera than it is to bring opera artists into theatre.

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