Reviewed by Will Stackman
The ART has had an interesting record over the years working on operatic projects, but Carmen is the first work from the popular repertoire to make it to the Loeb Stage, at least since before their time when Peter Sellars ended his last season with the Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theatre by staging the entire Ring Cycle (abridged) in one long sitting. Dominique Serrand, director of the Tony Award winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune from Minneapolis, is much more serious about his reduction of George Bizet's best known opera. Working with singers who've previously done Mozart with him, Serrand's taken the show back towards its roots in the opera comique, with dialogue scenes replacing most of the recitative, keeping a few important sung-through duets. The work is performed in the original French, using Meilhac and Halevy's well-known lyrics but otherwise tries to move the language closer to Merimee's plainer style. The surtitles, prepared by TJL's Steven Epp are plain and direct. Two small grand pianos take the place of the familiar orchestration, some of which was made more florid after the composer's death just three months after "Carmen"s disastrous premiere. Music director Barbara Brooks conducts from one keyboard; Kathy Kraulik provides harmony and texture from the other. Interestingly enough, some moments normally accompanied are sung a capella to great effect.
The two leading female roles, Carmen the seductress and Micaela the stalwart virgin are taken by two talented sisters, Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden. Both sing with exceptional clarity and are fully capable of acting in TJL's physical style, without any trace of the diva tradition. Bradley Greenwald makes Don Jose, the Basque soldier torn between them a believable naif, prone to violence and living in the moment. Greenwald also edited the score. Bill Murray's bullfighter, Escamillio, could be better served by the costumer, but is musically on par with his compatriots, just showy enough to for the character. The other important figure to the story line, at least in the first two acts is Zuniga, the police captain, a part originally taken by Serrand when the show premiered in Minneapolis in the fall of 2003. The ART's Thomas Derrah plays this part in impeccable French with a touch of Von Stroheim in his characterization. He also plays the old man guiding Micaela at the beginning of Act III. Derrah doesn't get to sing however.
The rest of the ensemble of eleven take multiple roles, as do even Peden and Murray. They are musically superb if occasionally given to over-acting. Fred Metzger opens the show alone as a single child with a toy gun, at first singing along with a recording then carrying the "Acala" tune on his own. He doesn't show up again until the curtain call. The cast handles their multiple roles as cigarette girls, soldiers, smugglers, and bullfight fans well enough. They could use a few more props, especially the smugglers, who aren't carrying anything.
Serrand, who designed the set for "Amerika" which he directed for the ART last spring, has provided himself this time with a rectangle of packed red clay as the major acting area, backed by a cement block wall. There's a wide staircase into the pit between the two visible pianos with exits below on either side. A tall industrial door in the wall is not used as well as it might be, and indeed in the last act doesn't function as the entrance to the bull ring as one might anticipate. Indeed the blocking for the first half is extremely effective, but begins to go awry in Act Three when Micaela's prayer starts to become a striptease and develops a Interesting but unnecessary subtext about changing clothes. Peden's character is also the only one to use a single window high over the doors, lurks on a firescape set fairly high stage right and sings while climbing down the ladder. Exactly how all this adds to her role is unclear, but Baldwin-Peden manages all this exercise with aplomb.
The fourth act is the most problematic. First, the picadors never make a appearance. Since Zuniga has been killed off at the end of Act II in Serrand's version, his unidentified replacement shows up looking for Jose the deserter and shoots him at the climax. Murray "suit of lights" is less that impressive, lacking a cape or a hat, though Carmen's formal red dress is quite striking, if a bit out of place. Everyone exits stage right to get to the bullring while the upstage doors stand open. There must be a better solution to the traffic problem. Micaela shows up in a long purple dress to witness the final death scene and pulls a long red train from the back of Carmen's outfit as she expires downstage center. This is an interesting take on an effect from the Kabuki tradition. Escamillo comes in shirtless covered with blood from his success in the bullring, but looks more uncomfortable than dramatic. Like the bouncing floor at the end of "The Miser", too many inspirations have combined to muddy a finale. It's effective if a bit confused. All in all, this is an auspicious start to the ART's season, which continues with a newpolitical drama from Columbia, "The Keening", which will be done in the Zero Arrow St. space at the other end of Harvard Sq. The larger emotions of romantic opera suit TJL's physical approach, far better than their revision of Moliere last season.