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Theater review

Chamber Interpretation Brings ‘Carmen’ Within Reach

By Kelley Rivoire


American Repertory Theatre in association with Theatre de la Jeune Lune

Composed by Georges Bizet

Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halvey

Directed by Dominique Serrand

Starring Christina Baldwin, Bradley Greenwald, Jennifer Baldwin Peden, and Bill Murray

Sept. 30—Oct. 8

Loeb Drama Center

Tickets $37-$74; Student Rush Tickets $15

Passion — with near certainty, this is the first word associated with the opera “Carmen.” The story, which travels from a cigarette factory, to the mountains, to the bullfight ring, follows an unforgettably beguiling gypsy woman and those who fall prey to her charms. Full of this passion and torment, and with the consequences of one woman’s games erupting on a scale of life and death, “Carmen” usually lends itself to grand staging and a large number of choristers.

The latest production of “Carmen” by the American Repertory Theatre in collaboration with the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which staged this production at its Minneapolis home in 2003, rejects this tradition. Their “chamber” version of the opera replaces the expected dozens on stage with 17, a full orchestra with two pianos, and a grand opera theater with the more intimate Loeb Drama Center. While these changes help personalize the opera with a new spark of intensity, bringing the singers to within feet of the audience, this version also loses the element of spectacle and the rich orchestral colors that make “Carmen” memorable.

Composed by Frenchman Georges Bizet in 1875, “Carmen” led a shift in opera away from heroic tales to operas, characterized as “verismo,” that focused on the lives of ordinary people, albeit in this case a rather exotic ordinary (another trend of the time).

Carmen, the desire of all the men around her, works in a cigarette factory. When she fights with another worker, she is taken to prison by brigadier Don Jose. He becomes helplessly and hopelessly captivated by her and leaves the sweet, innocent Micaela for Carmen. Carmen’s passions shift from lover to lover quickly, and she soon rids herself of Don Jose, favoring instead the toreador Escamillo. As Don Jose tries to reclaim her, it becomes clear that the story can end only in death and despair.

The singers in the production range from solid to exceptional, and it’s a pleasure to sit in a theater small enough to see their faces. Christina Baldwin plays a fantastic Carmen, captivating the audience as her character does Don Jose. Whenever she appears on stage, whether singing or not, the focus shifts to her, and she does not disappoint.

A baritone singing the tenor part of Don Jose, Bradley Greenwald has a strong voice, though his acting seems at times a bit stiff. As the na ve Micaela, Jennifer Baldwin Peden sings touching soprano solos and wrenchingly beautiful duets with Don Jose; however, she overacts her role, especially in the first act, making her character so skittish and frightened that she becomes utterly unbelievable.

As Escamillo, Bill Murray adds nothing special, his voice clearly the weakest of the leads, his acting mediocre. Two actors in the supporting roles of gypsy smugglers, Justin Madel as Dancaire and Kelvin Chan as Remendado, act their roles superbly, adding comic moments to an otherwise dramatic opera.

No matter how well the cast performs, however, the staging leaves the production lacking in the richness of the traditional presentation. The interior, mysterious scenes in the mountains fit well with this staging, but the opening and closing scenes, outside the cigarette factory and by the bullfight ring, call for a grander setting. And while the idea of splitting the score into two piano parts, with each piano representing two of the four main characters, certainly works better than a reduction to one piano would have, any number of pianos cannot encapsulate the depth and color of Bizet’s original scoring.

In one of the opera’s most famous pieces, Carmen’s “Habanera,” the repetitive rumbling of the cello and bass is sorely missed; in the concluding bullfight, the pianos cannot provide the excitement usually generated by the strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion; the entr’acte preceding the third act, which features breathtaking flute and clarinet solos, is completely omitted in this production.

The small cast is inherently incapable of creating the spectacular excitement that marks traditional versions of Carmen. Carmen’s fight with fellow factory worker Manuelita should show a raw melee, impossible with a small chorus. Early in the first act, “Sur la place,” which describes the spectacle of people passing through the city, loses its gravity, though the production tries to compensate by having the soldiers sing the piece from among the audience rather than on the diminutive stage. The set itself, gray and stark, changes little from start to finish, again depriving the audience of Carmen at its fullest.

The American Repertory Theatre’s “Carmen,” up-close and personal, offers an enchanting story, focusing on the intensity of the relationships between characters. But there’s only so much this small cast accompanied by two pianos can do. While you should see this production of “Carmen,” make sure to see a traditional one as well, or you’ll miss what makes this opera one of the most famous and most performed of all time.