On Stage: A Moving “Carmen”

Although it isn’t my usual performance milieu, I ventured to Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “Carmen” with the prospect of seeing some tidbits from Attack Theatre dancers Ashley Williams and Dane Toney. It turned out that they added an air of destiny in their trio of duets rather than performing in dance showcases that pepper most operas. But there was a bonus. Attack directors Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope also had a hand in working on movement with the “Carmen” leads, so I was interested in the results in this production.

As I understand it, Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn has a philosophy that blends the various elements for which opera is known — singing, music, acting and dance. The first two are the artistic staples for this art form’s epic-urean delights. Acting often takes a back seat to volume-inous singers who stand there and literally give a shout out. Knowledgeable audiences wax poetic on high notes, phrasing, tone, register et. al. — and that will never change. There can be nothing more thrilling than the unadorned outpouring of the human voice.

The music, at its best, supports that notion. Puccini, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi and Wagner all produced work that stand the test of time. They are judged for the overall content of each opera, but it is the arias, with melodies often sweeping and/or uplifting, that are often remembered with a special adoration. And so it is with Bizet’s “Carmen,” filled with soaring melodies that, a handful of which, at the very least, rank near the top of opera’s greatest hits.

But too often the singing and music are not in sync with the other operatic elements, allowing for a fractured theatrical experience for audience members. Perhaps that’s because my first look at operatic gusto came at the long-gone, but not forgotten Syria Mosque in the Pittsburgh Opera’s “Samson and Delilah,” where Samson stalked the stage in elevator sandals and Delilah took to her chaise like a beached whale. A very young Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre ensemble swept onto the stage for the “Bacchanale” in bikini outfits. I also noticed that most of the orchestra members (Pittsburgh Symphony in those days) in the open orchestra pit had memorized the music and faced the stage, rather than the venerable conductor Richard Karp, to watch.

Since then I have had a “show me” relationship with the opera. I most appreciate it when there is a sense of reality to the movement, because the movement does not lie. It doesn’t have to be an “official” dance, but a staging that takes advantage of an authenticity in the movements of the singers. For that reason, I was moved to tears by Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “Grapes of Wrath” last season.

The music in “Carmen” is a special case because it is eminently danceable. (And it’s worthwhile to note that the Pittsburgh Opera’s eminently watchable Antony Walker, too, veritably dances while conducting.) Perhaps for that reason, Hahn chose a relatively young cast, all physically attractive, and possessed with clearly-drawn, if not huge voices.

Their playground was a balcony set that made for some tricky entrances and exits because the chorus had to funnel onto a narrow and very steep staircase that was awkwardly located off to one side. However, it was versatile for the various set changes and made wonderful sense for the fourth act, where the bullfighting was located behind the back wall.

“Carmen” lends itself to various historical interpretations and it appeared that director Eric Einhorn chose to render 1830 Seville with sepia sensibility a la “Les Miserables” (particularly in the mountain pass of the third act), which served to soften the story of Spanish gypsies singing and speaking in French.

To Einhorn’s credit, he lightened the opera’s tone in the first act as the cigarette girls came out from their break, a number of them puffing cigarettes. (It was strange how socially-incorrect behavior could be turned into a  plus.) Carmen (or Carmencita) was sultry but not slutty, strong-willed but not the usual over-the-top force of nature. You might say that the sense of swirling cigarette smoke, and not stereotypical Spanish bravado, defined the production from then onward. These were real people, heightened by their dramatic situation.

While the movement for the ensemble was not as strong as it might have been, the stage direction for the leads created a wonderfully intimate setting on the Benedum Center stage, enabling the audience to identify with these Carmen, Don Jose, Escamillo and more. The movement was a marvel, blending seamlessly with the stage direction and particularly effective as Kate Aldrich’s Carmen enticed and embroiled her men.

And when the final act came around with its most emotional musical passages, Einhorn willingly returned to more usual operatic conventions, letting the soloists remain stationary and the music to the talking. By then the characters were so well-drawn that the audience cared about their emotions. And that made Carmen’s murder, so well-staged, that much more effective and a surprise (to say the least), even if you knew it was coming.

While there are certain operas that will probably best be produced in traditional fashion (“Aida” comes to mind), I prefer a more conceptual approach, even if this “Carmen” was occasionally imperfect. If given my druthers, I would rather have “well-focused” singers who move and act well than the powerhouses who stand there and fill the house, albeit with artifice. And I think I represent the untapped masses of potential opera-goers out there.

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