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Peabody Southwell as Carmen [Photo by Karli Cadel]
14 Mar 2017

La Tragédie de Carmen at San Diego

On March 10, 2017, San Diego Opera presented an unusual version of Georges Bizet’s Carmen called La Tragédie de Carmen (The Tragedy of Carmen).

La Tragédie de Carmen at San Diego Opera

A review by Maria Nockin

Above: Peabody Southwell as Carmen

Photos by Karli Cadel


In 1983 Stage Director Peter Brook, in collaboration with writer Jean-Claude Carrière and composer Marius Constant, pared down the French grand opera to its bare essentials and presented La Tragédie de Carmen, a ninety-minute version of the story.

Rather then enumerate all the characters and musical numbers omitted, I will simply list the main characters and mention much of the music we heard at the Balboa Theatre on Friday evening. The characters were Carmen, Don José, Zuniga, Micaela, Escamillo, Garcia, and Lillas Pastia. If you are wondering who Garcia is, he is Carmen’s husband. He is mentioned in the Proper Merimée’s original book but not in the opera. Brook’s Carmen was no longer a glamorous gypsy and she had lost her factory job. However, she still managed to divert José’s attention from Micaela even though the latter sang with lustrous tones. The country girl put up a fight, however, and in this version of the story she had more spunk than in the grand opera.

KarliCadel-SDOpera-TragedyCarmen-3876.pngAdrian Kramer as Don Jose

With no chorus of soldiers in the background and no children imitating them, the focus was on the rivalry and its results. Carmen fascinated José with the "Habanera" but the orchestra had been pared down to a fifteen-member chamber ensemble. Thus, she did not need to have the big operatic voice we normally hear singing over a full orchestra. Peabody Southwell sang Carmen with a sultry sound and played up her intense sexuality. Her "Seguidilla' was delightful, her "Gypsy Song" enchanting, and there were no extra soldiers to harass her.

The memento she gave José, sung by tenor Adrian Kramer, was a red knitted stocking, not a flower. Nevertheless, he held it as he sang a beautifully lyrical "Flower Song." When the story moved to the inn, we met Max Cadillac as Lillas Pastia, an amusing female impersonator and hostess extraordinaire. At one point, Carmen was involved in a threesome with José and Lillas. Then we understood that the soldier’s thoughts had long since left his elderly mother and the village girl who expected to marry him.

Of course with a chamber orchestra and many fewer characters, there were no ensembles in the La Tragédie. Gone were the smugglers and their wonderful quintet. Instead we saw raw emotion, love and hate. Carmen had become theater. A fine actor as well as a singer, Adrian Kramer painted pictures with the colors in his voice. José, his possessive, psychotic character, was as essential to the story as Carmen herself. His tragedy grew out of his own actions, however. If only José had not left his village, he and Micaela might have had a chance at happiness, but after his trip to the big city, he, like many others, would never go back.

KarliCadel-SDOpera-TragedyCarmen-3908.pngAdrian Karmer (Don Jose) and Andriana Chuchman (Micaela)

Bass baritone Ryan Kuster gave a thoroughly pleasing performance of Escamillo with a full orchestra at Arizona Opera not too long ago. In San Diego his vocal range seemed to be a bit restricted, but it may be that some of the Toreador's notes are written lower in La Tragédie. He was a spectacular matador, however, and for a while it seemed as though Carmen belonged on his arm. Unfortunately, the bull killed him early on and his bloody corpse left the ring in an open cart.

Brook’s Carmen is a young girl eager to make money any way she can in the early scenes but she believes in fate and, for that reason, she understands that sooner or later she will meet her destiny. She is younger and much less of a glamor girl than Bizet’s Carmen, but she will intrigue patrons who are more interested in character and conflict than in the spectacle offered by grand opera.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Conductor, Christopher Rountree; Director, Alexander Gedeon; Scenic and Video Designer, Yuki Izumihara; Costume and Video Designer, Adam Alonso; Lighting Designer, John A. Garofolo; Fight Director, Brian Byrnes; Don José, Adrian Kramer; Carmen, Peabody Southwell; Micaela, Andriana Chuchman; Zuniga/Garcia, Anthony Nikolchev; Lilla Pastia, Max Cadillac; Escamillo, Ryan Kuster.

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