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Trying to Make 'Carmen' Shocking Again

Cabaret de Carmen, photo courtesy of American Opera Theater
We have been following the work of American Opera Theater, since when it was named Ignoti Dei Opera. Timothy Nelson has directed this little company, based in Baltimore, in some daring repertorial choices over the last few years. In that time, he has run afoul of critical opinion more than once, but with an eye toward the pioneers of the recent past, like Peter Sellars, Nelson continues to make interesting and original choices. To open its fall season, AOT has chosen to remake one of the sacred cows of the opera repertory, Bizet's Carmen. The opera's popularity is seemingly endless: I have reviewed two productions since 2006, with a third soon to come from Washington National Opera, which mounts it again this November (after only a six-year absence). Surely no one needs yet another Carmen, but has the almost continuous staging of the opera made it lose its punch?

That was how Nelson put it earlier this week, that the grand trappings of umpteen productions have made audiences forget what he called "the dark essence of Carmen." This production began with the idea of finding "a way to present Carmen so that it would grip audiences and remind them of the power living within Bizet's score and Mérimée's story." So, the group hit on the concept of recasting the opera, in a stripped-down version of the score, as a cabaret show. The audience will be seated at tables on the theater floor, where they will be served food and drink by the performers, literally part of the action.

For the musical adaptation, Nelson went back to the reduced version used by Peter Brook, in performances at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris and later at Lincoln Center in the 1980s. The result, which he called La Tragédie de Carmen, was streamlined down to the central characters and the most important music. One critic described it as falling, "disconcertingly, between drama embarrassed by the music and opera disemboweled by the drama." For a company working on a limited budget, of course, a production involving only four singers and two actors, as well as a very small orchestra (reduced further to a typical cabaret ensemble) had obvious appeal. Nelson did not want merely to revisit Brook, however, and wrote new dialogue to retell the story within the context of a cabaret act. With fewer characters and none of the operatic grandeur, the story becomes much grittier, what Nelson calls (echoing Brook) "theater of the essential," allowing a "more concentrated energy devoted to the central characters" to emerge.

Brook cut most of the choral music, as well as the pieces for the minor characters. He also went back to largely spoken dialogue, keeping only the famous solo pieces and reordering many of them to refashion the story. Nelson has made the piece even more his own, by designing a character for himself in the new book he wrote for the show (that is Nelson in the photo above). The character, whom Nelson likens to the Emcee in the musical Cabaret, "acts as the force behind the drama, a personification of fate that puts things into place for the tragedy to occur, like a puppetmaster." He continues, "It's as if I get to direct the production from within the production as it is performed." It is a good thing, he adds, for a director to experience what performers experience.

The opera traditionalist looking for Carmen will not find it in this production. For the more adventurous listener or theater-goer, it might make for an interesting change.

American Opera Theater will present the Cabaret de Carmen this weekend and next, at Baltimore Theater Project, with shows on September 25 to 28 and October 2 to 5. Tickets range from $22 to $40. At the same time, Opera Vivente, another adventurous company in Baltimore, offers up an alternative to the same old Don Giovanni, with an English-language adaptation of the Mozart classic (September 26 to October 4).


Anonymous said...

Will there be any S&M action again? I'm so jaded from all the Zeffirelliisms, it's really the only way to get me to the opera, these days.

Anonymous said...

Actually...yes! But it really works. Or atleast it did tonight.