We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019


Theodore Sarge, Young-Kwang Yoo, Lara Secord-Haid, Matthew Pearce, Tahanee Aluwihare, Quentin Bruno,
and Geddy Warner

If you love revolution in opera, read no further.  Just try to snag a ticket to City Lyric Opera's current production of La Tragédie de Carmen at the West End Theater (at The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew) before word-of-mouth books up the remaining performances. We promise you an entertaining evening. Our attention was captured for an hour and a half and we left filled with conflicting thoughts and feelings.

This production has one foot in Bizet's 1875 masterpiece and the other in Part III of Prosper Mérimée's novella (which masqueraded as a non-fiction travelogue). But it has both feet in the water upon which we will shortly elaborate. And it is up to its neck in directorial narcissism.

It is our opinion that a work of art should stand on its own merit and should not require exegesis. Imagine explaining the Mona Lisa! For that reason we do not read the program until after an opera ends. We prefer to allow it to affect us. Or not.

The 1981 work La Tragédie de Carmen is an adaptation of Bizet's masterpiece; and it is not a masterpiece. It is a condensed, telescoped version, preserving our favorite arias, but ditching the chorus, the local color, and many of the characters and scenes that tell the story. The emphasis is shifted to the four main characters and their intense interaction. 

Arias have been reshuffled like the cards that the titular Carmen uses to foretell her future. Jean-Claude Carrière wrote dialogue to knit the vignettes together and Marius Constant composed music to weave the arias together. Peter Brook directed it, reminding us how we wish the era of regietheater would end. Opera began as a composer's medium and put the singer center stage. In our opinion this is how it should be. Directors should stick to film!

That being said, it was a canny choice for the relatively young and daring City Lyric Opera. Their mission is to provide one-of-a-kind opera going experiences without expectation or financial burden. This they have achieved. They have managed to keep us well entertained and to find excellent singers to feature in their productions.

For example, we had the marvelous mezzo-soprano Tahanee Aluwihare whose dusky instrument and seductive presentation gave us a believable free-spirited Carmen. As Micaëla, soprano Lara Secord-Haid sang beautifully but had the unenviable task of making the shy but brave character into a nasty jealous shrew who attacks Carmen.

Our Don Jose was superbly portrayed by tenor Matthew Pearce who was strangely "promoted" to the rank of General, which made his subjection to the will of Zuniga (Geddy Warner) rather peculiar. Men of lesser rank cannot demote a General! Forgetting all that, he sang with beautiful tone and lovely phrasing--and no down-time to rest his voice.

As Escamillo, Young-Kwang Yoo used his fine baritone to advantage without any costume choices to aid in his characterization.

Considering musical values aside from voices, Maestro Rebecca Tong led a chamber orchestra of 15, emphasizing the suitability of this production for a boutique opera company. We cannot claim to be completely satisfied with the balance; the piano sounded particularly odd when contrasting the cheerful theme of the bullfight with the tragic theme of Carmen's death. A recording by a full orchestra was used for the bullring music and this was poorly integrated with the live music.

Addressing the production values, some ideas were valid and some struck us as bizarre. The program notes would have the audience believe that the reflections on the water are meant to make us reflect upon our emotional gaps and how we fill them. Not for one moment during the show nor afterward has this entered our introspective mind. We cannot say that mirrors would have served better but we can say that making singers perform in several inches of water seems a form of artist abuse.

When Don Jose and Escamillo fight with water pistols (we kid you not) the audience laughed out loud, as they did at other points in the performance. We are not saying that comic moments don't belong in a tragedy; the Bard himself had humorous scenes in his tragedies. But this was just weird.

It also seemed inapposite for Micaëla and Carmen to have a cuddle session toward the end. There was not a shred of evidence to motivate that scene. As a matter of fact the condensation of the plot did not provide much motivation for a lot of the action. The wedding scene came at a point when Carmen was through with Don Jose and we thought it was a fantasy of his.

In the Mérimée novella, Micaëla does not even exist-- but Garcia, Carmen's husband (Quentin Bruno) does. His presence in this version seemed to serve to illustrate Don Jose's violent nature.

The rape/death scene seemed particularly badly directed since Carmen just lay down in the water as if she wanted to be raped. If this was supposed to make some kind of psychological point, it didn't float.

The production team comprised Victoria Collado as Director, Anna Driftmier as Scenographer/Costume Designer, and Charlotte McPhearson as Lighting Designer. We are not sure but surmise that directorial decisions were made jointly. 

In any case, Ms. McPhearson's lighting was suitably dramatic. An ensemble of three men wore headbands with bright lights which added to the eerie quality. They were Theodore Sarge (who had a brief moment as Lillas Pastia making a speech), Quentin Bruno (who had his brief moment as Garcia), and Geddy Warner (who had his brief moment as Zuniga).
We were wondering whether opera newbies would be the right audience for this piece. It is short. It is dramatic. It has sex and violence. We tried to approach it with the openness of a newbie and still found fault. What about diehard opera fans? We think they would find it a travesty with all that cut-and-paste of the music. Of course, it could be fun to identify where in the Bizet the music was taken from. "Oh wait!  Isn't that the music from where Micaëla is looking for Don Jose in the mountains?"

Perhaps if someone want to retell the Carmen story, he/she might consider writing their own music!

Photos from the production can be seen on our Facebook page--Voce di Meche.

(c) meche kroop

1 comment:

  1. Meche, your review was spot on. As an opera fanatic of 40 years, I left this show so angry; my friends who were newbies had no idea what to make of it, and expressed doubt about whether they would see another opera. I tried to explain that this is not what it is. We saw the other cast and they were all wonderful young singers. I felt sorry for them having to perform under these conditions. This sort of "look at me" direction is precisely why I rarely attend staged opera any more. I fell in love with not only the voices but the sets and costumes, with being transported to another time and place. I almost never get that experience any more. Every time I was hearing sloshing water, getting my retinas burned out when the spelunking headlamps turned in my direction, and trying to figure out what all this stuff was supposed to MEAN, I was taken out of the story, out of the singing, out of what Carmen is all about. I hope this company continues in their obvious talent for finding the right voices, but this kind of directing is doing everyone - audience, singers and art form itself - a disservice.