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Ola Rafało [Photo by Uzan International Artists]
13 Oct 2013

The Tragedy of Carmen, Syracuse Opera

Carmen Lite: Singing shines in Syracuse Opera’s pocket-sized The Tragedy of Carmen

The Tragedy of Carmen, Syracuse Opera

A review by David Abrams

Above: Ola Rafało [Photo by Uzan International Artists]


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.

David Abrams

This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

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