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‘La Tragédie De Carmen’ Review: An Operatic Classic Revisited

Limor Gaash and Michael Aoun in "La Tragédie de Carmen" at Arrow Street Arts in Cambridge.
Limor Gaash and Michael Aoun in "La Tragédie de Carmen" at Arrow Street Arts in Cambridge. By Courtesy of Nile Scott Studios
By Lara R. Tan, Contributing Writer

Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” is the third-most performed opera in the world and one that has transcended the opera theater and entered the public consciousness. Whether in the form of Muppet renditions or the 2001 film “Carmen: A Hip Hopera” — in which Beyoncé made her acting debut — the opera is a story of deadly seduction, warring wills, and ultimately tragedy as an untimely death befalls the iconic titular character.

However, Boston Opera Collaborative’s recent performance of “La Tragédie de Carmen” — a Marius Constant, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Peter Brook adaptation of Georges Bizet’s original opera — dramatically flipped the script, and not only by choosing a 90-minute version of Bizet’s three-hour melodrama. The adaptation purports to preserve the most memorable tunes from “Carmen,” as well as redesign the original into a “taut and fast-paced tragedy,” according to Boston Opera Collaborative, that takes into account characters’ cultural identities and power dynamics.

Directed by Alexandra Dietrich, this vision of “Carmen” sought to highlight the outsider statuses of the opera’s two protagonists — Carmen, a Romani woman and Don José, a Basque man — in the context of 19th-century Spain. Notably, several characters and the opera’s gargantuan chorus were cut from the piece, resulting in a more intimate, pseudo-chamber opera experience. Nevertheless, this choice did not compromise the plot of the opera, in which a corporal Don José finds himself torn between his childhood sweetheart Micaëla and the fiery, independent Carmen, who herself catches the eye of a swaggering bullfighter Escamillo. In this version, Don José’s infatuation with Carmen drives him to kill a superior officer, Zuniga, and even Carmen’s husband, Garcia, effectively putting the spotlight on a man acting on lust and pushed to his moral limits. The ending of the opera also received a significant revision: In the original, Carmen is murdered by the spurned Don José after she professes her love for Escamillo — however, in this version, Carmen takes her own life in a final act of agency, protesting against a society and its people who have rejected her for her nonconformity.

This refreshed plot was effectively conveyed by Dietrich’s riveting direction and Jeremy Barnett’s set design. Making full use of the intimacy of the Arrow Street Arts black box theater, the set featured tiered platforms that snaked around the perimeter of the space, holding the orchestra in its embrace and creating spatial dynamism that effectively conveyed the various character power dynamics at play. However, there was arguably room for the performers to be more compelling in their characterizations, given the sheer emotional force of the source material. Especially given the radically condensed plot and runtime, performers could have been more immersed in the story, giving their onstage interactions more believability and consistency. For example, the dynamic between the opera’s leading couple could have been intensified and Don José’s character motivations were not always readily apparent, leading to confusion over why he would go to such drastic lengths for Carmen to begin with.

Nevertheless, the cast was vocally strong in delivering Bizet’s music, much of which remained from the original, including Carmen’s sultry habanera, Escamillo’s pompous toreador song, and Micaela’s moving aria in which she experiences a crisis of faith in her own resolve. Mezzo-soprano Limor Gaash was an assertive vocal and dramatic presence, embodying the role of Carmen superbly with her husky, purring lower register. In contrast, Sarah Joyce Cooper was a tender yet self-assured Micaëla, bringing a rich tone and gravitas to a role otherwise commonly written off as an unsophisticated peasant girl. Patrick Starke was a believable Don José, bringing his fine upper register to the spinto tenor role. Baritone Ilya Silchukou’s performance was certainly a highlight of the evening, with his powerful voice and charisma lending the right flair to the character of Escamillo.

The singing cast was supported by two additional speaking roles who delivered spoken dialogue in French. Michael Aoun, who played both Zuniga and Garcia, was a compelling presence with his assertive physicality and acting capabilities. His interactions with Starke’s Don José were a linchpin to the story, highlighting Don José’s alienation from established authority and larger Spanish society. Courtney Fitzgerald’s Lilas Pastia was a charming addition to the cast, moving the plot along with her spoken and sung quips.

The orchestra, under the music direction of Ken Yanagisawa, was appropriately small in the context of the black box setting. However, the much-reduced orchestra could have played with more expressiveness, especially vis-a-vis Bizet’s lush original score. Nevertheless, certain moments of the musical adaptation and the orchestra’s handling of the fresh take were incredibly effective: For example, the entire opera opened with a haunting viola solo instead of the renowned thunderous overture. This choice lent a fitting aura of mystique and introspection to the piece. This mood was also accomplished elsewhere, such as the opening of Carmen’s habanera which featured nothing but the timpani’s hypnotic beat, transforming her aria into a darker cautionary tale against falling in love with her.

Overall, Boston Opera Collaborative provided a fine evening of immersive storytelling and music. The production paid homage to a well-loved operatic classic, honoring its musical and narrative source material while also bringing characters to life with a stellar cast performance.

Boston Opera Collaborative’s production of “La Tragédie de Carmen” ran at Arrow Street Arts from April 4 to April 6.

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