Filet of Carmen

Considering that the heroine of Bizet’s opera usually ends up stabbed, I want to make clear that the headline refers to Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen, a much shorter version of the original, and not the violence meted out by Don José.

I just saw Loose Tea Music Theatre’s wonderful new production of their adaptation, mostly Brook plus a bit more of Bizet.  In conversation with Alaina Viau, the director/producer and adaptor (and maybe i should also call her  dramaturg, fund-raiser and promoter), we discovered we had something in common.  I hope I paraphrase correctly, but I think we both find Bizet’s opera problematic, and that motivates the adaptation.  It’s as though the opera is a ritual slaughter, complete with the cheers of the bullring, as though she were just an animal, a strong woman, sacrificed because she transgresses the usual rules of her society.  I can’t deny Bizet’s opera is brilliant precisely because it draws us in like one of those youtube videos of a disaster, a murder you can’t bear to watch, but keep watching all the same.  I hate what happens to Carmen, and have had trouble watching it….in its complete version.

I could be wrong, but I believe this is the first time Brook’s version has been done in Toronto, possibly in Canada.  It’s a whole new look, and at roughly 80 minutes is well-nigh irresistible.  Where have you been all my life, Carmencita..!?  Carmen-lite is a greatest-hits show, breath-taking to hear, and much more powerful in its reduced form.  Like the Johnny Walker that the hero seems to be swigging, if you take the pure essence undiluted, you will get very intoxicated.  In its short time on the stage, La Tragédie packs an enormous wallop.  I cried in a couple of places, and no I didn’t expect to be moved this way.  If you can’t be bothered reading the review, the executive summary is “SEE IT!”

In the interview from a few days ago Viau explained that José is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and we’re in the period after WW I.

Fight Director and PTSD consultant, Sean Brown, working with Ryan Harper (left) and Cassandra Warner

Fight Director and PTSD consultant, Sean Brown, working with Ryan Harper (left) and Cassandra Warner

The first time we see him –during the prelude—we can already see that he’s hyper-sensitive to loud sounds, using alcohol to suppress his feelings.  In the first ten minutes, mostly between Ryan Harper’s José and Lisa Faieta’s Micaela, I had to get acclimated to the pace of this adaptation, a very economical texture, with super quick exposition and great tunes, instead of the usual gradual story-telling.  Even if you don’t know the story, you can read between the lines; but we’re taken a long way very fast, especially with Cassandra Warner’s seductive arrival.  We don’t doddle around with the soldiers, the children’s chorus or the cigarette factory, oh no.

And it all clicks in an instant because Warner is a very beautiful Carmen.  She scans the audience during the Habanera as if checking every one of us out (and yes for a moment I was also so swallowed up by the moment that I was wishing her eyes would land on mine and…?), singing of love while every eye is upon her. It’s inevitable that the innocent José Harper plays would be out of his depth, and easily reeled in by her.  He’s overmatched by the accomplished extrovert, exactly as the score gives it to us in the longer opera.  This is the prescribed dynamic, given that Carmen & Escamillo are confident extroverts singing boastfully to crowds, while José and Micaela are lonely romantics in comparison.

I look forward to hearing how Warner’s voice develops in the years to come.  Yes she’s a wonderful actor, physically beautiful, but (oh but I must sound like such a nerd) the voice?  The high notes have me wondering what she’ll be singing in a decade’s time. When she hit her top notes I was thinking of a voice like Susan Graham, where she’s on the boundary of being a soprano, and very assured up there, even if her colour is luscious and dark in the middle voice.

Cassandra Warner as Carmen

I believe she’s a conductor’s dream, almost too precise in her near-perfect intonation.  I wondered if she’s also an instrumentalist, because I’m not accustomed to singers who sing this accurately.

Where this was my first experience of Warner, I’ve been listening to Harper for awhile.  I’ve reviewed him twice before, as Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte with Opera York in 2011, and later that year in Against the Grain’s second mounting of La boheme.  I’d remarked already at Harper’s comic gift.  Not only is he the funniest Ferrando I’ve ever seen, but he brought unexpected lightness to Rodolfo, making the tragic turn of the last act feel deeper than usual.  How was this lyric voice, this comic sensibility going to work as Don José, the character that –as mentioned above—troubles me…?  At the beginning he was a lot like every José I’ve seen, giving us the intense romantic.

And then we came to his flower song, sung not to Carmen, but as a soliloquy as if sung to the flower.  While he’d given us plenty of voice, at this moment we were taken to a still place, a lyric reading of the aria penetrating deeply into the text.  I was sitting in the front row, indecently close, and at times had eye contact with this man singing an artificial piece about a flower & love that can sometimes feel genuine and heartfelt in a big theatre.  The vulnerability of the comedian was there, except those skills took us to a new place, one of authenticity and depth, even as he sang the aria easily.

And so when we come to the last scene and Carmen faces José, it was not the usual ritual slaughter.  Warner stands tall, every line dignified and brave, while Harper’s innocent delivery for the first five minutes reminded me of Anthony Perkins in Psycho, someone who fools us because he seems so gentle & kind.  Who could ever suspect that such a sweet voice would do anything violent?  But he changes.  We watch it, and even in the tiny space at Buddy’s it rings completely true.  It has to work this way, or it would make no sense that she’s stood her ground so long, and not run away.  I like what Viau does to this scene, what she asks of Warner & Harper, and I believe she’s in touch with us, a society who have (forgive me Georges!) outgrown the ritual slaughter of that 1875 bourgeois opera.

I must also mention two other wonderful performers.

Greg Finney steals the show every time he’s onstage (the funniest one in Against the Grain’s Boheme and again in Figaro), so I am thrilled to see him in a principal role.  This is an Escamillo who perfectly matches the extroversion of Warner’s Carmen, a flamboyant man of charmisma unafraid of crowds.  Finney’s voice is amazingly versatile, as he gave us plenty of voice in the Toreador Song, yet always gave us a perfect balance in his ensembles.  And Lisa Faieta as Micaela made the most of her brief role, especially memorable in a wonderful rendition of the aria we usually hear in Act III.

I was again reminded of AtG’s Boheme, the way this Carmen feels inside Buddies in Bad Times Theatre space, a long way away from a big opera house.  Oh my, there’s so much talent in this city, and new companies coming up all the time.  Welcome Loose Tea Music Theatre! If you can fit it in, please see this either Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. You won’t be sorry you did.

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7 Responses to Filet of Carmen

  1. Domoney Artists Management says:

    Hi there,This is definitely not the first time ” La Tragedie de Carmen” has been performed in Canada.Francois Racine directed this dramatic opera last summer at Richard Margison and Valerie Kuinka’s Highlands Opera Studio, and Opera Hamilton produced it a few years ago as well.
    Kathy Domoney, Director
    Domoney Artists Management
    23 Northview AvenueToronto,
    (416) 892-4382

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  3. Just got back from the Saturday performance. Anyone who loves opera (and even those who just like it!) need to see this tomorrow. Alaina Viau’s staging is superb. It belies what I must imagine is not a ton of experience staging opera. All of the singing is of a high level, and then some. Highlights for me were the simple connection between Micaela and Jose’s mother – it is clear in their duet that she is some kind of mommy substitute. I love the costuming for Micaela – she looks like one of the wives on Big Love with her plain, pinafore dress and prominent crucifix. Perfect, as she is really a symbol of the other life Jose could have led. Loved the way Escamillo was turned into a kind of carnival shykster (sp?) – I never really truly believe in this character anyway, so why not play him this way. Warner seems to have it all for Carmen – the voice, the presence, the allure – I hope to hear her in other versions of the opera in the future. But having said that, I’m not so sure I care too much about ever seeing a big opera house version of Carmen again. This pared down take on the piece makes a lot of sense and seems to perhaps deliver it back to its opera comique roots. Much more direct and devastating – I think I prefer it this way. This production deserved a much larger audience than was in attendance tonight – hopefully Sunday will be a sell-out.

    • barczablog says:

      Agreed(!)… I’d go again if i could. I like the way you describe Escamillo (Greg Finney). He felt almost like a cabaret performer at times, smooth & canny, and for the first half of her performance, so was Warner (Friday), as she gradually changed. I feel Bizet meant us to feel a structural (dramaturgical) difference in Escamillo & Carmen, who sing much of their music diegetically within the story to an audience; they’re performers, so they have an edge. Micaela & Jose are more operatic. So Carmen goes back and forth, at times as smooth as Escamillo, at other times –especially the last scene– as wagnerian as Jose. Brook’s version makes so much sense in a world where we can already skip some scenes (on our DVD or CD), or where films do fast exposition, expecting us to figure it out without tons of explanation. I think we’re all smart enough for this. I will be intrigued to notice how a regular Carmen feels, next time i encounter one.

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