Brook’s Tragedy of Carmen flattens a great opera
By Peter Alexander
Colorado Music Festival’s performance of The Tragedy of Carmen, Peter Brook’s radical reduction of Bizet’s opera, gave me heightened respect for the work great theater composers do, fitting their music to the demands of the stage.
Unfortunately, that is because so much of the slimmed down work fails to match music and drama as effectively as Bizet did in his original.
To be clear, that was not the fault of the performers. Under the direction of CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni, and with a strong cast of singers, last night’s performance at the Chautauqua Auditorium (July 10) was delivered with emotional force and musical skill. But their commitment was not enough to overcome the limitations of the work.
Zeitouni has described The Tragedy of Carmen as “the pure essence of Carmen, . . . not the regular 40% scotch but more like 97% alcohol, distilling the essence of the passion of the opera.” But for me, the CMF program notes hit closer, saying this version “is best labeled as Carmen Light. Like Bud Light (it) is less filling. But whether the new product tastes great depends on each listener’s palate.”
Fair enough. And my palate, honed by great operas including Bizet’s Carmen (and Colorado’s great craft beers), found the low-calorie version, just like light beers, lacking in taste.
There are several specific shortcomings that I found in the work itself. First, removing so much of the original takes away much of the context in which the drama is played. This has the effect of flattening the characters and their emotions.
A pertinent example is the scene in Lilas Pastia’s tavern. In the original, the gypsy dances that open the scene establish the kind of place it is, and provide the atmosphere for the following scene between Carmen and Don Jose. Reducing those dances to a brief flourish by Carmen not only removes the context, the setting and the atmosphere, it forces the story to lurch without respite from emotional punch to emotional punch.
A second problem is the repurposing of music that was written for a specific dramatic or stage context to another, as when the music written for a riot among the cigar girls is used for a fight between Carmen and Micaëla. Such repurposing of music discounts the skill with which the composer tailors his music for the stage. If we have a fight between two characters, it would be better to hear the music Bizet would have written for that more intimate scene, rather than what he wrote for a stage full of people.
The extreme condensation results in scenes not having time to breathe and build. In Bizet’s opening scene, there is a long buildup of tension from the moment Carmen throws a flower at Don Jose, to her arrest and her escape. Brook reduces this to a much shorter span of time, dissolving most of the suspense that Bizet so carefully builds in his score.
Brook has made some capricious changes in the plot. For one, there is a mysterious man from Carmen’s past who suddenly interrupts a love scene between Carmen and Don Jose, shouting “She belongs to me.” Only moments later he is killed by Don Jose, offstage. I still don’t know what dramatic purpose he serves. If it were not for the dark music, this would be almost comical.
The most shocking change comes near the end, when a funeral march—not from Carmen—interrupts the dramatic final scene between Carmen and Don Jose, while a projected title tells us that Escamillo has died in the bull ring. This change eviscerates the ending of the story and denies the audience a great musical-dramatic stroke, when the cheers from the bull ring punctuate Jose’s passionate appeals and murder of Carmen.
Brook’s version does remove some absurdities of plot that we have tolerated because of the dramatic truth of the opera. For example, we do not have the mountainous, secret smuggler’s lair that everyone in Seville can easily find. But we loose some of Bizet’s best music in the process, and we do not get any compensating dramatic truth, either.
While the work seems questionably conceived, the performers addressed their parts with intensity and commitment. Zeitouni led a decisive performance by the CMF Chamber Orchestra. The singers do not have named roles, only voice types, of which Abigail Fischer was a strong mezzo soprano, essentially the Carmen of the show. The abbreviated performance did not give her the chance to build a fiery, luminous character, but she dominated her scenes, as she should.
Jeanine De Bique’s soprano/Micaëla sang warmly, darkly, strongly in a role that is not made more rewarding by Brook’s changes. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov had the unenviable task of playing two different characters who die before the end, Zuniga and Escamillo. I thought he was especially effective in one of opera’s great star turns, his entrance as the toreador. Tenor Jason Slayden was vocally passionate, if a little stiff dramatically in his scenes as Don Jose.
Chautauqua Auditorium may not be a great venue for theater. Many of the spoken lines were scarcely audible, particularly when the orchestra was playing. The limited performance space left the actors to move almost randomly, with no setting to indicate destination or motivation, and I found their movements around and behind the conductor to be distracting.
I suspect this show is best for people who do not know the original Carmen well and want a distilled taste of the story. Clearly, many in the audience enjoyed it. I cannot begrudge them any pleasure taken from the music and the performance, but you will more likely find me at a future production of Bizet’s full opera—or enjoying a strong local brew.
EDITORIAL NOTE (7/11/16): The CMF program notes for The Tragedy of Carmen do not credit an author. However, it has come to my attention that the portion that I quoted above—Brook’s version “is best labeled as Carmen Light. Like Bud Light (it) is less filling. But whether the new product tastes great depends on each listener’s palate.”—appeared in an Oct. 13, 2013 review by David Abrams of a performance of The Tragedy of Carmen at Syracuse Opera, published online at Opera Today.