The set-up: Do you hear that whirring deep underground? It's composer Georges Bizet spinning in his grave after the beating his immortal opera masterwork Carmen gets under ham-fisted director/auteur Peter Brook in his adaptation La Tragédie de Carmen. Tragedy, indeed.
Poor Bizet. First he had to die prematurely during the opera's premiere run at Paris's Opera-Comique, never knowing what a smash hit he had created; now, he has to endure this.
The execution: This one-act Reader's Digest version from 1981, closing out Opera in the Heights' season, is an unholy mash-up of the opera, Prosper Merimee's 1845 novella, and tons of directorial flourishes from the radical director who caused a theater stir with such Royal Shakespeare Company productions as the inmates-run-the-asylum Marat/Sade (1964) and the white box, acrobatic A Midsummer Night's Dream (1970). Along with contemporary Robert Wilson, Brook's visual flair is always striking, but his hot-house ideas tend to shock more than illuminate.
Tragédie doesn't shock, so much as stupefy. Needless to say, this 80-minute intimate piece dispenses with the opera's colorful mise-en-scene, paring the sumptuous Spanish tapestry down to a threadbare quartet and two speaking roles.
There are no Seville townspeople, no soldiers, no kids chorus, no brawling cigar factory girls, no gypsy smugglers, no bullfight parade. Though cut, rearranged, and re-orchestrated by Marius Constant, the opera's famous numbers are somewhat intact (Carmen's "Habanera" and "Seguidilla,"Jose's "Flower Song," Escamillo's "Toreador Song," Micaela's "I am not afraid"). They drift in and out, functioning less as character motivation as in Bizet, than used as background score to Brook's condensed, simplified expressionism. I suppose this type of treatment is OK as a Greatest Hits compilation, or as a pale substitute when a full stage mounting isn't feasible. But what's the point? Why mess with something that's perfect as it is? Why redo Carmen at all?
This Brook recension adds no great insight to Bizet. If anything, the distillation makes the whole affair more comic when every incident gets piled on top of one another. There's no breathing room for the characters to develop or interact within the world that the opera so fulsomely creates.
Fortunately, OH's presentation has a fiery Carmen in mezzo Sishel Claverie. (Briana Hunter sings the role in the alternate Emerald cast.) Exuding erotic stage presence as if trailing cigar smoke, she steams up intimate Lambert Hall. In her red laced corset and swirling skirts, which never stay down for long, she cuts quite a figure. Feisty and free, she's no man's possession. Enter at your own risk. In a lovely touch, she rolls a cigar on her bare thigh. Claverie's voice is smoky and seductive, too. Stand back, or get burned.
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No one can touch her, although soprano Lisa Borik, as Micaela, who loves Jose from afar, is a good match. Her rich, soaring voice gives this wimpy good girl more intensity than usual, but she still doesn't have much to do in this pocket-sized version except stand aside and witness Jose's degradation. Tenor Brent Turner, as love-mad Jose, had a more difficult time of it opening night, but came into his own after his lyric voice opened up. His "Flower Song" wasn't ideal, slipping out of key on those treacherous high notes, but as his character grew more jealous and unhinged his voice found the right niche, full and dramatic. (Jose Daniel Mojica sings hapless Jose in the Emerald cast.)
Baritone Jared Guest was a pumped-up bullfighter, although in Brook's version, he enters Pastia's tavern hideout without entourage or cheering throngs, slipping in quietly as if he's about to order tapas and a sangria. Guest's big and burly, a bit rough around the edges, but his celebrated "Toreador Song" was nicely phrased, replete with matador's ego and roving eye.
We're in '30s Spain under Brook, a time shift that's almost de rigeur these days whenever Carmen is produced. Designer Jodi Bobrovsky's Picasso-inspired cubist look fits admirably. Every scene has a fight in it, so it seems, be it knife or fist, and the cast commits wholehearted to Josh Morrison's staged mayhem. Director Lynda McKnight keeps the show freighted with "fateful" poses, while young maestro Eiki Isomura leads his chamber orchestra through Bizet's beguiling, if truncated, melodies with seductive ease.
The verdict: Bizet's white-hot opera sizzles and smolders. One of opera's first down-and-dirty works, the Parisians didn't know how to respond to such wild carrying-on, especially at the Comique, known for its lighter fare so different from the oh-so-grand Operá. In only a few months, the ferocious gypsy girl would seduce Europe, soon to conquer the known world. She's never been out of the Top 10 in any list of the most popular operas. Brook does her no favors by stripping away background and motivation and rejiggering the music, but there's nothing he can really do to damage our favorite Lady of Spain. She's much more enduring than he is. Carmen's always had great bones, legs, and voice. At Opera in the Heights, Claverie possesses all three to enchant, lure, and seduce us anew. La Tragédie de Carmen. March 26, 27, 28, 29m at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For information visit operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $13-$63.