Chicago Opera Theater strikes sparks with post-Bizet “Carmen”

Mon May 11, 2009 at 5:21 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Noah Stewart as Don Jose and Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen in Chicago Opera Theater's "Le Tragedie de Carmen"  - Photo by Liz Lauren
Noah Stewart as Don Jose and Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen in Chicago Opera Theater’s “Le Tragedie de Carmen” – Photo by Liz Lauren

Peter Brook’s La Tragedie de Carmen is not your grandfather’s Carmen. Or, at several points, Bizet’s for that matter.

For the central production of its spring festival, Chicago Opera Theater is presenting Brook’s 1981 chamber recasting of Bizet’s celebrated opera, which received a vivid, vocally impressive performance Sunday afternoon at the Harris Theater.

The English director’s chamber version is a kind of free fantasia on Bizet’s musical drama, paring the sprawling French opera down to a concise single act of ninety minutes. Jettisoned are the chorus, most supporting characters, and the orchestra, though in Marius Constant’s deft reduction for fifteen players, musically very little is missed.

More controversial are the liberties taken with the scenario and score.  Carmen and  Micaela engage in a catfight, which ends with the good girl’s face slashed; Escamillo dies in the bullring, or in the case of COT’s staging, the boxing ring; and Don Jose is less of a tortured victim, than a homicidal maniac, killing Zuniga and Garcia as well as Carmen. And while Constant’s musical stitching is done with great skill, purists will balk at the occasional retoolings, most strikingly, Micaela’s Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante briefly becoming a duet for her and Carmen. This La Tragedie de Carmen, more broadly, offers a kind of proto-feminist revisionist take on Bizet’s opera, with this nightclub chanteuse Carmen a heroine true to her beliefs to the end, antisocial and dangerous as they are.

Taken on its own terms, La Tragedie de Carmen works quite effectively, particularly given the superb performances and thoughtful production served up by Chicago Opera Theater.  Sandra Piques Eddy is a sexy, smoky-voiced Carmen, fully believable as the gypsy temptress, delivering an alluring Habanera and singing with ample tone.

COT’s production is almost decorous compared to other stagings of Brook’s Bizet that featured nudity and more sexual provocation, though this version does give Noah Stewart, as Don Jose, a chance to display his great pecs. Stewart possesses an imposing if low-lying tenor, though he was able to float the high notes of the Flower  Song with refinement and sensitivity.

As a Valentino-like Escamillo, baritone Michael Todd Simpson was a worthy foil to Stewart, showing credible boxing moves and  bringing a big baritone and apt swagger to the Toreador Song. The statuesque Krenare Gashi displayed a vibrant soprano as Micaela, and Rick Snyder was amusing as the cynical English-speaking innkeeper Lillas Pastia (doubling as Garcia).

Andrew Eggert directed the singers fluidly and unobtrusively, effectively updating the action to the 1930s Spanish Civil War. Carol Bailey’s unit set with raked circular stage and L-shaped stone wall provided the right off-kilter visual, evocatively lit by Christine Binder.

Alexander Platt conducted the chamber ensemble with incisiveness and flexibility, bringing out the clever felicities of Constant’s rescoring, and providing firm dramatic momentum, the opera unfolding in a seamless arc.

There are two more performances of La Tragedie de Carmen May 13 and 15 at the Harris Theater.; 312-704-8414

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