Confused staging undoes Utah Opera’s downsized “Carmen”

Mon May 10, 2021 at 10:16 am
By Rick Mortensen
Isaac Hurtado and Kirstin Chávez star in Utah Opera’s La tragédie de Carmen. Photo: Dana Sohn

Under the constraints of the pandemic, Utah Opera has done some exquisite work. Last October, when the social distancing protocols were most severe, the company presented Poulenc’s La voix humaine, which proved a riveting psychological drama and musical tour de force for soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer. That one-woman show was on a double bill with a delightful production of Joseph Horovitz’s light comedy Gentleman’s Island.

After slamming home runs under such difficult circumstances, the company hit a foul ball in its season finale with a confusing, unsatisfying production of Peter Brook’s La tragédie de Carmen, which opened Saturday at the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre.

La tragédie de Carmen is a 1981 revision of Georges Bizét’s Carmen by theater director Peter Brook, which has seen regular revivals in the decades since its Paris premiere. The cuts to the original are dramatic in Brook’s chamber distillation, with Carmen’s 140 minutes pared to 80. All the choruses are eliminated, and there are only four singing roles. In addition to the cuts, Brook reshaped the plot, shuffling the order of the scenes and reinserting elements from the novella on which the opera was based. The final product is an entirely new theatre piece based on Bizét’s music.

It might have been jarring for some to hear Bizet’s familiar tunes out of order and in the service of a revised scenario, but Brook’s downsized Carmen has proven notably successful. Perhaps it would have been so again in the current Utah Opera production were it not for the dubious changes made to Brook’s adaptation by director Omer Ben Seadia.

While Brook’s adaptation was set in 19th century Spain—in a theatre-in-the-round bullfighting ring—Ben Seadia set the Utah Opera production in “present day Spanish Harlem” (though the costumes were a hodgepodge of eras and styles). Don José is a police officer instead of a soldier, and Escamillo a pop singer instead of a bullfighter. Rather than a factory worker with a smuggling side hustle, Carmen’s occupation was more ambiguous; there were hints that she was a prostitute, an exotic dancer and/or a waitress at a shady bar owned by Lillas Pastia (here an imposing figure as played by Daniel O’Hearn in red track suit, red sneakers, and gold chain).

Video of Pastia’s bar, a few New York street scenes, and the fight scenes were projected on the back wall, as was a recurring motive of Carmen dancing. The set itself appeared to be a screen made of white board, and the characters drew on it and erased at various moments. Behind the screen, conductor Ari Pelto ably led a hidden chamber ensemble, which sounded even smaller than Brook’s 14-piece band.

By themselves, the modern updates shed little light on the plot or characters, and too often got in the way. When combined with sets and staging that failed to tell a clear or chronologically coherent story, they mired the production in a distracting state of confusion. The show began with Carmen and Don José in adjoining prison cells, though it wasn’t clear what they were in for. Both soon left on their own volition, with Don José donning a policeman’s uniform and Carmen following a character dressed like a Victorian madam known in the program as “Fate” (Edith Grossman)

In stark contrast to the original opera, which begins with a rousing overture, Brook’s tragédie begins with a plaintive melody for solo viola (in the original a horn) leading into the sweet, subdued aria “Parle-moi de ma mere.” In the aria, Don José’s betrothed, Micaëla, brings him a message and a chaste kiss from his mother, and the two express longing for their provincial hometown.

Beginning with the slow, nostalgic aria was a bold choice for Brook, but in Ben Seadia’s production it just raised questions. Why is Don José in prison and how did Micaëla get in his cell? Where is the idyllic hometown he left to join the NYPD? Staten Island? Why is he so annoyed to see Micaëla? 

Julia Gershkoff is Micaëla in La tragédie de Carmen. Photo: Dana Sohn

As Micaëla, Julia Gershkoff delivered the aria flawlessly, with a gorgeous tone and sensitive phrasing. Isaac Hurtado took full command of Don José’s vocal part, but his apparent anger with Michaela in what is usually a tender scene was puzzling and unmotivated.

As in the original opera, the famous Habañera comes early in the show, and it was expertly sung by Kirstin Chávez as Carmen. However, its effect was blunted by the production’s odd choices. Instead of the traditional blouse and flowing skirt, Chávez wore a black bustier and tight, calf-length black jeans. Her costume and her movements created a sexuality that was cheap rather than dangerously alluring. When Don José broke down and kissed her, it seemed to come out of nowhere.

The kiss occurred while Carmen was under arrest in Don José’s custody and his subsequent release of her landed him back in his prison cell, a place linked to a lot of the production’s incoherence. He was released by his superior Zuniga, who dramatically stripped him of his badge and gun–but, oddly, not his walkie talkie–and told him he’d be lucky to find work as a security guard. (Don José apparently found a new gig on his way to the next scene in Pastia’s bar, because his walkie-talkie called him away to work before Carmen could finish her castanet-themed private dance.)

Before he could get to work, Don José encounters and kills Zuniga, which lands him in his cell for the second time. It was apparently a long sentence, because Fate showed up and drew tally marks on the wall, but Carmen showed up soon; they leave together and get married in an outdoor scene projected on the back wall. This leaves the audience to wonder: if the prison cell is metaphorical, why does he go there after committing crimes? If it’s real, why can he leave?  

The character who seemed most comfortable in his own skin was Escamillo, amiably played by Efraín Solís. He sang the famous “Toreador Song” holding a microphone and facing the audience, and it was easy to see him as a pop star who sings bullfighter songs. His light but rich baritone and slight swagger gave him an easy chemistry with Chávez, which was a welcome respite from Hurtado’s angry energy.

Hurtado has a powerful voice and commanding presence, but the primary emotion he projected in this production was annoyance: at Micaëla, at Carmen, and at his circumstances. The only time it let up was just before Don José killed Carmen at the end, in this staging’s most bizarre conceit.

Don José’s murder of Carmen is perhaps the most foretold and foreshadowed event in all opera. In this version, Fate showed up right before the murder and opened double doors on the back wall of the set into the orchestra, like the statute in Don Giovanni opening the doors to hell. This, for some reason, caused Don José to drop his knife and embrace Carmen for a full minute and for the couple to say their tender goodbyes. When they released, having fallen to the floor, Don José picked up his knife and methodically stabbed Carmen, causing her apparent surprise as she collapsed, and her dancing image appeared on the screen above.

Rather than a catharsis, the scene caused collective confusion, as the socially distanced audience members looked at one another and waited for the applause from the director’s box to signal that the show was truly and mercifully over.      

Utah Opera’s production of Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen runs through May 16 at the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre.; 801-533-6683 Seating is limited due to social distancing protocols and masks are required.             

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