13 Oct 2013
The Tragedy of Carmen, Syracuse Opera
Carmen Lite: Singing shines in Syracuse Opera’s pocket-sized The Tragedy of Carmen
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
Carmen Lite: Singing shines in Syracuse Opera’s pocket-sized The Tragedy of Carmen
But the production’s austere minimalist set and Peter Brook’s condensing of Bizet’s magnificent operatic score may not suit every listener’s tastes
The story of Carmen has been told countless times in countless ways — from the original novella by French author Prosper Mérimée that formed the nucleus of Bizet’s opera to the cinema (The Loves of Carmen with Rita Hayworth) to Broadway (Carmen Jones), and from ballet to Bugs Bunny cartoons. But few settings have captured the drama surrounding a proud soldier self-destructing over his relentless obsession with a gypsy femme fatale with as much emotional power and lyrical passion as Bizet’s Carmen.
Syracuse Opera’s season-opening production of The Tragedy of Carmen, a scaled-down but dramatically intense adaptation of Bizet’s opera by Peter Brook, gave listeners a taste of the story many had not experienced before and did so with some strong individual singing efforts. And although some listeners expecting to re-live the splendor of Bizet’s Carmen may have left the theater disappointed, the broad shouts of approval at the production’s conclusion suggests that great drama, expressed unconventionally, may merit a look.
Brook, the British-born theater and opera director widely respected for his productions of Shakespeare, offers much to contemplate in this boldly edited distillation of the Bizet masterpiece. Gone are the choruses, ensemble numbers (other than the duets) and several of the characters. Brook gives Carmen a second life, reworking Bizet’s music and libretto into a highly concentrated and emotionally intense reduction of the composer’s original.
At one-third the length of Carmen (the opera), The Tragedy of Carmen is an 80-minute product perhaps best labeled as Carmen Lite. And like Bud Light, Brook’s version is less filling. But whether the new product also tastes great depends on each listener’s palate.
I have to go on record admitting that I don’t much care for the Peter Brook version. I applaud his vision in focusing on and intensifying the dramatic aspects of Carmen, even though that means trimming away the fat. But it is well to remember that reducing fat also compromises taste. And for those like me who have spent many happy years basking in the sheer beauty and power of Bizet’s dazzling score, it’s difficult to embrace an alternate version that pares its music to Reader’s Digest proportions while reducing a full-size orchestra to a 15-piece chamber ensemble.
A second problem for Bizet enthusiasts is the depressing set used for the current production of The Tragedy of Carmen — which may have had some listeners wondering whether they took the wrong door and ended up at an Ingmar Bergman film festival.
Certainly, the set has to remain faithful to Brook’s dark, desolate and nightmarish drama in which all four characters are doomed. But Syracuse Opera’s ultra-bare minimalist set — a large circular carousel with a small black table and chair — captured the expressionistic atmosphere of the drama with uncompromising sterility. Eighty minutes of despair in a dark room is hard to take. When I left the theater I was ready for light therapy.
But whatever your feelings on the Brook setting and austere set, there is much to love in the singing here, and Ola Rafalo — singing her first-ever role of Carmen — deserves the lion’s (or should I say tigress’s) share of the credit.
Rafalo’s dark and richly hued mezzo soprano during the sultry Habanera established her character immediately as a seductress par excellence, and her pitch in the devious Seguidilla was incredibly accurate — with no sign of seams when navigating through vocal registers during thespacious octave leaps that permeate this demanding aria.
Rafalo’s acting skills are quite satisfactory in this role, buoyed by her good looks and attractive figure that breathe life into her persona as a deadly siren. When Rafalo performed the Castanets Dance in front of Don José, the poor soul remained frozen like a deer caught in the headlights. I especially loved her rendition of the famous Triangle Song, which she delivered in bravura fashion— although I wish she had danced this, as is customary, instead of simply twirling around a shawl.
We only hear the role of Micaëla at the beginning and end of the Brook version and that’s a shame, because soprano Colleen Daly’s silky and deeply penetrating soprano provided a treat for the ears I wish did not have to end. Daly’s duet with Don José at the smugglers’ camp was full of expression and nuance, and she projected well throughout the performance, with credible French diction.
As the doomed soldier Don José, Brent Reilly Turner overcame some tightness in his throat early on in his duet with Daly and found his voice, in all its glory, during the magnificent Flower Song (La fleur que tu m’avais jetée), which he delivered with great depth of feeling. The role of Don José in the Brook adaptation does not garner the same degree of sympathy as in the Bizet opera. The troubled soldier comes across here as little more than a cold hearted, cutthroat murderer — having killed his captain (Zuniga), Carmen’s husband García (a character in the original novella who does not appear in Bizet’s opera), and ultimately Carmen herself.
Had the bull not killed Escamillo, Don José may very have obliged him, as well.
Turner, whose acting Friday left something to be desired, nevertheless forged a character that appeared believably disillusioned with his life and his continuous spiral downwards into the depths of despair. Still, his exaggerated sobbing and uncontrollable cries of anguish at the end, as he kills Carmen, was over-the-top and unconvincing.
Like Turner, Wes Mason as the toreador Escamillo needed some time to shift his pleasant baritone into “drive.” He clipped his phrases in short staccato spurts at the at the beginning of his signature Toreador song before expanding the melodic lines into a smoothly sustained legato that laid bare the handsome quality of his voice. His baritone carried easily throughout the theater, and his high notes were solidly on-pitch. Mason, who raised eyebrows in the crowd when he removed his shirt, made the cover of the Barihunks blogspot — which touts itself as showing off “The Sexiest Baritone Hunks from Opera.” There may be a promising career ahead for this man — either as a singer, or a Chippendale.
The 15-piece orchestra, all of whom except the pianist comprises Symphoria musicians, provided excellent instrumental accompaniment in this newfangled chamber transcription provided by Brook’s musical collaborator, Marius Constant. Because the performance started some 25-minutes late (due to an unspecified “technical glitch”), intonation among the wind and brass instruments began slightly off-kilter, but the seasoned musicians brought pitch under control sooner than the crowd could say “Habanera.” The Entr’acte music with flute (Deborah Coble) and harp (Ursula Kwasnicka) was especially lovely.
Conductor Douglas Kinney Frost, Producing and Artistic Director for Syracuse Opera, followed the singers faithfully and maintained a proper balance between singers and instrumentalists that was well suited to the live acoustics of the Carrier Theater.
For this production, Syracuse Opera chose to use French, the language of Brook’s original, even though a perfectly adequate English translation by Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) is available and widely used in this country. I applaud Syracuse Opera for sticking to the original language for the arias and duets. But there’s no good reason why the spoken dialogue couldn’t have been delivered in English, the way the company had done in past productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. As it was, Bruce Paulsen (as Lillas Pastia) was the only one of the three speak-only roles whose French was even remotely intelligible. Common sense dictates either using English for the spoken dialogue, or else hiring actors whose résumés include French 101. Stage Director Jeffrey Marc Buchman’s antics ranged from the daring (simulated sex scene between Carmen and Don José) to the dangerous (choreographed knife fights). The fight sequence between Don José and Escamillo conjured a convincing sense of realism and danger that had me wondering whether Workers Comp covers opera-related injuries. I especially liked Buchman’s clever and audacious touches during Carmen’s Habanera scene, as the seductress appears to fondle Micaëla from behind, then raises the girl’s arms and begins to work her as one would a marionette.
Buchman’s use of an orchestra recording of the Toreador section in the Overture to Bizet’s Carmen during Escamillo’s nightmare sequence — where he foresees his impending death at the bullfight ring — proved a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I appreciated this clever touch and the pantomime that accompanied it. On the other hand, hearing this excerpt from the full-orchestra version made me long that much more for Bizet’s original score.
The barren set demands suitable compensatory lightening effects, which were craftily managed by Christopher Ostrom’s spotting on the characters at the proper moments. The stage remains dark and gloomy throughout the performance, so lighting is limited exclusively to spotlighting characters at dramatically opportune moments. For example, when Micaëla pleads with Don José to return home to his dying mother, only Carmen is illuminated — suggesting that Don José’s infatuation will prevail over dear old mom.
The present Syracuse Opera production, which runs through Oct. 20, signals a return to Carrier Theater at which the company routinely performed in its earlier years. The theater, which can accommodate about 463 listeners, allows an ease of projection on the part of the singers and instrumentalists that is flattering at even the softest dynamic levels. Moreover, there’s not a bad seat (either aurally or visually) in the house. On the other hand, the size of the orchestra pit is limited, which may affect the company’s choice of repertory. Even with a pit of only 14 instruments, the piano used in this production had to be positioned outside the pit (and out of sight), stage left.
I’m glad I saw this production of The Tragedy of Carmen. Even beyond the fine singing (and in particular the memorable performance of Ola Rafalo) there’s merit to seeing an old favorite rebottled as new product. To be sure, Peter Brook provides an interesting concept in his newly brewed Carmen Lite.
But in this case, one drink is my limit.
This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.