American Repertory Theatre, joint production with Théâtre de la Jeune Lune. Brattle Street Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by Dominique Serrand
A chamber opera version of Bizet’s grand opera, with a pared down script and score, two pianos instead of an orchestra, small handfuls of persons for chorus, and playing time of two-and-a-half hours . I wasn’t enthralled by this version of the opera, but I have to admit it worked, and the performances were excellent. Christine Baldwin was the Carmen, right for the role and with a powerful mezzo voice. The Don José was Bradley Greenwald, a baritone with a lovely falsetto — not the usual tenor, and in a note he explained that one or two numbers had to be pitched down for him. In that same note Greenwald explained his choices as the preparer-adapter of this slimmer version of the Bizet original: he emphasized the eliding quality of the dialogue and the music, making more of a drama out of it. In a sense this plays against the strong lyric impulse at the center of the operatic genre, namely, to prolong the moment of passion.
The director, Serrand, collaborated in this approach by giving the principles a great deal of physical activity to engage in (vintage Théâtre de la Jeune physicality) while they are singing demanding musical lines. At one point Carmen is rolling on the floor while carrying a full-voice melody. Remarkable. Even more remarkable is that they are doing this every night. And in matinees too. Greenwald must have tailored the opera with frequent performance in mind.
There is something fairly silly at the heart of this tale of fatal passion: much seemingly mindless to-ing and fro-ing over the all-encompassing question of love — “Je t’aime / je ne t’aime pas / je t’aime,” etc. The vagaries and whimsies of life end up being definitive of it. Well, when Don José kills the police chief (or whatever he is) Zuniga, that seems to preclude a return to the normalities of soldier life. But we knew he was done for in the early scene when he falls for Carmen, every bourgeois’s image of the lower-class femme fatale. All the rest is composed of versions of “I love you, but you don’t love me anymore” — “Well, maybe I do after all” — “No you don’t” — “Yes I do,” etc. It is supposed to be grandly climactic when Don José can’t stand Carmen’s shabby treatment of him and, faced with a competitor who will take her away from him, kills her. “So, nah-nah”: “If I can’t have her nobody can.” Believe it or not, this is the stuff of wildly successful grand opera (Carmen, we are told in the program, is the single most popular opera of all).
And the ART audience just loved it too; at the end, after a deathly hush as the action and music ended and the actors froze in place, they were on their feet, applauding loudly and enthusiastically. So there you have it. But it was an interesting experiment, and I have to admit having liked it myself.