IN: Reviews

De-mythologized Carmen

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Limor Gaash as Carmen and Michael Aoun as Zuniga

Faithful to its mission of keeping opera alive and accessible, the Boston Opera Collaborative has staged a concise, bold, and refreshing production of Peter Brook’s La tragédie de Carmen at the newly renovated Arrow Street Arts. The Brook version, pared down to 80 minutes, four singers and a small chamber orchestra, extracts the core love story from Bizet’s tableau historique opera but also reaches back to Prosper Mérimée’s original novella to heighten Carmen’s licentiousness and José’s murderous brutality. Bizet’s beautiful score is redeployed in a stark, heightened atmosphere of Fate. Embracing Brook’s own creative freedom, Stage Director Alexandra Dietrich did not hesitate to pare down the story further and to add her own unexpected interpretation and surprising final twist.

Whereas Bizet opens the story with a raucous theme evoking a society of spectators who push glamorous individuals into extremes for the sake of entertainment, Brook cuts to the heart of the matter, opening with Bizet’s Fate theme. Under Ken Yanagisawa’s deceptively modest baton, Taisiya Sokolova on the viola succeeded marvelously in evoking a haunting, tragic mood, emphasizing the gypsy atmosphere of exile and longing from the start. Revealingly, Dietrich replaced Brook’s own Becketian staging idea of presenting a single, central, completely veiled figure kneeling in the dust with her own decision to present a half-veiled Carmen in colorful rags walking across stage to a peripheral position where she sets herself up to beg. With this one stroke, she set the ancient Greek stage of high mythology packing, and put us frankly among our own street people, rough sleepers and wretches. Wake up, Boomer! Great love stories do not happen only among the rich and famous ― they happen among the homeless over whom you stumble on your way back home from the theater…

Patrick Starke gave a convincing interpretation of Don José as a troubled run-away who cannot grow up and who longs for a mother figure because he cannot assume any kind of adult responsibility. With his béret Basque askew and baggy soldier’s uniform, Starke’s José has grabbed a makeshift military career without conviction or calling. Self-destruction and rage burn inside, suppressed, ready to flare up at the slightest pretext. When Sarah Joyce Cooper’s nicely plain and down-to-earth Micaëla reaches out to him with his mother’s letter and kiss, José is tempted. In Dietrich’s version, the maudlin piety of standard interpretations is gone. José is tempted to come back into the fold only because he is inadequate, infantile. As though detecting this, Limor Gaash’s decisive Carmen springs into action. She throws the fateful flower at him, and sings the Habanera.

With a perfect pitch (take) that conveyed self-confidence rather than allure, Limor Gaash  gave the Habanera a refreshing forcefulness, cutting back on seductiveness to emphasize instead its call for the uncharted life of the unruly and the misfits, as though she had recognized her kinship with the troubled runaway. When she stabbed Micaëla, Gaash’s laughter implicitly reminded José of his own lack of impulse control, forging a bond with him. When she defied Zuniga, she reminded José that he himself cannot deal with authority. In this staging, José’s famous cry – “Carmen, je suis comme un homme ivre!” (I am like a man intoxicated) as Carmen sang to him of dancing and drinking at Lilas Pastia’s —took on a fresh meaning, nicely blurted out by Starke as though his true self had been revealed to him.

The theme of a gig economy and of marginal wretches flourished in Act II with a memorable rendition by Gaash of “les tringles des sistres tintaient,” emphasizing her ruthless gypsy powers as she seduces Zuniga. In the orchestra, Derek Dugat on castenets brilliantly evoked the enigmatic seduction of castanets. Gaash’s taunting of José as he heard the distant trumpet calling him back to the barracks was also excellent, vehement and crude, appealing to their common nature as lawless misfits who cannot abide any pretense of stability. José not only agrees to desert but also kills Zuniga in a fit of jealousy. De-mythologizing the story further, Dietrich and Ilya Silchukou colluded to give us a very novel Escamillo: a rogue in his own right, bereft of glamor and vanity, but winning Carmen through his ability to evoke a father figure more experienced in killing – further emphasizing, by contrast, the kinship between Carmen and José as insecure, lost youths who have no idea how to survive.

The Orchestra winds beautifully opened Act III in the Romani Camp, creating an atmosphere of heart-breaking sweetness as Carmen and José, now a deserter and murderer, are bound by a sort of ritual wedding, implying that they just might find their way together. This brief moment of sweetness and hope is destroyed as Carmen’s first husband, Garcia, appears (Michael Aoun again, now with eye patch and hair disheveled). Implicitly, Carmen has tried marriage before, and failed. The very heart of Dietrich’s retelling of the story, to my mind, occurred at this point, when Gaash delivered a deeply poignant version of Carmen’s card-reading, with Death inevitably and always turning up ― while a newly sordid José got Garcia drunk and stabbed him to death. In the enigmatic concluding duet between Micaëla and Carmen,  Cooper and Gaash implied that Bohemian Fate on the one hand, and Faith in God on the other, are really two artificially opposed sides of a same tragic human destiny in which women are desired and reviled, adored and abused, because they are the unwitting catalysts of birth and death.

The final Act, opening with boisterous vitality in the orchestra, created a haunting contrast between the ersatz father/daughter couple of Carmen and Escamillo ― I loved that Carmen didn’t succeed in doing Escamillo’s tie, a nice reminder of the gig-economy of precarious marginal ― and the equally ersatz mother/son couple of Carmen and José. As a marvelously regressed Starke pleaded for his mother-figure not to abandon him, Gaarsh deployed a proud Carmen who simply found herself at the end of her rope and disguised it with bravado. Carmen, Gaash implied, is now depleted. She yearns to be taken care of. When she realizes that Escamillo is one more illusion, one more unstable love object that has failed her, she gives up. In a bold initiative, Dietrich reinterprets the final murder, drawing a cry of disbelief and horror from the audience. Shall I reveal it? No! Because I hope that this bold, refreshing, subtly orchestrated and performed version of our great immortal Carmen will travel to many new venues and bring its devastating light.

Indispensable Carmen! Just as Don Juan embodies the indispensable vitality of lust, Carmen embodies the indispensable magic of free creativity, born of the whimsy of desire and the wings of invention. Storytellers, poets, novelists and screenwriters, who are threatened today with being replaced by AI, you must heed Carmen’s call to resist — and maybe, just maybe, José will stay his hand and find in himself the grace not to destroy what he loves.

Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.

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