A surprisingly undramatic, almost concert version Carmen opened at the COC last week (through May 15, alternating cast). I couldn’t find the name of the original director anywhere in the program, but Joel Ivany as the revival director perhaps did his darnedest before realizing that he couldn’t resuscitate this clunker and let the principals do a lot of their own concert-style blocking? Too much of the time they sang to the audience rather than to each other, even in scenes that desperately call for naturalism.
When in Act 4 Don Escamillo, after the cheers and fanfares, starts with “Si tu m’aimes, Carmen”, he is saying this to us, not her, standing next to him. The poor old Act 1 suffered from this a lot. There’s a wrought iron fence with gate across the stage—entrance to the barracks–that limits the action to the strip in front of it. There’s no cigarette factory for the factory girls. The setup doesn’t show soldiers gawking at them: the girls walk out from the wings, park in front of the gate and sing to the audience. We never see the fight between Carmen and Manuela: when they’re dragged out to the stage by the solders, it’s all over.
Soldiers themselves are not a menacing presence (in some productions they are enforcers of a militarized society) but a bunch of fellas hanging neutrally about, enjoying the sunshine. Carmen being customarily groped by Zuniga—not a thug here, but a handsome silver fox (Alaine Coulombe)–really doesn’t seem like a big deal, though okay, there are hints that the two have a history. When the children’s chorus come out, instead of jostling, being unruly, imitating soldiers, they—you guessed it—sing to the audience while doing some cutesy marching.
Another surprising choice: the curtain stays down for the overture and the orchestral interludes at beginning of acts. I can’t remember last time I saw this, it seems like directors are generally phasing it out.
When the singers do sing to each other, the drama properly picks up and you find yourself enjoying the opera. This tends to happen in Act 2 at Lillas Pastia and in the very last act, at the bull fighting spectacle. The “Les tringles des sistres tintaient” could really have used some professional dancers or choreography. Ivany decides to poke fun at Don Escamillo upon his entrance by making the crowd go just a little too wild, and it works great. Act 4 is especially well resolved, and the picadors, l’Espada, the toreador etc. coming through the audience is a good idea.
Clementine Margaine as Carmen is a fine discovery. She is one of those mezzos who do a lot of Carmens around the world (like Rinat Shaham, for ex), but there’s nothing routine or generic about her Carmen. Properly dark, warm, large-ish voice and a very credible dramatic approach. David Pomeroy as Don Jose was exactly right: a tense brooder who would still be living with his mother, were it not for whatever he had to escape his hometown for and find shelter in the military. His smooth and bright tenor was a good timbre partner to the dark mezzo. They were a very credible couple.
Charlotte Burrage was very prim as Mercedes (more filth needed, please! Is this Jane Austen or Bizet’s Seville?), while Sasha Djihanian as Frasquita really went for it. The raunch, the daring, the dancing, the voice: everything was there. Zachary Nelson’s vocal and dramatic gamuts, on the other hand, were MIA last night, his Escamillo remaining one-note.
All in all, Paolo Carignani’s take on the score was perfectly serviceable, give or take a number. The quintet (the three women and their two smuggler pals) at Lillas Pastia was much much too fast, and the Act 3 felt like everything went slow-mo, with Micaela’s aria (oh right, she’s still around) and the chorus and the extras that don’t have any room to move and can only stand still on the steps of that derelict church. The spoken dialogue throughout proceeds at a good pace, though. Fortunately, the Carmen we get to see is the original version with spoken dialogue, not the sung-recits weirdness that is still occasionally done.
Carmen remains a brilliant theatrical piece, efficiently structured, populated by psychologically sophisticated characters, and some productions manage to show how exciting it can be. In this recycle-revival, we get to see that only occasionally.