ArtsEmerson's "Trip to Bountiful": the Enchanting Island of Cicely

Cicely Tyson, Arthur French & Jurnee Smollett-Bell in "A Trip to Bountiful"
(photo: Craig Swartz)

ArtsEmerson’s current offering of the recent Broadway version of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” has an impressive pedigree. It began as an original television drama (remember those?) way back in 1953 with none other than Lillian Gish in the lead role of Carrie Watts. It transferred to Broadway for a brief run with the television cast intact. Three decades later it resurfaced in a well-received film version with Geraldine Page winning an Academy Award for her performance of Mrs. Watts. Most recently, in 2013, it was revived on Broadway and subsequently again on film by the Lifetime Network (nominated for two Emmy Awards) with essentially the same cast now being enjoyed in its Boston reincarnation.

The story is a simple one, that of the physical and emotional journey of the elderly Carrie Watts (Cicely Tyson) who lives in Houston with her very protective son Ludie (Blair Underwood) and his bitchy wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). Forbidden by Ludie to travel alone and no longer able to drive herself, she fulfills her dream of revisiting her ancestral home in the (mythical) small Texas town of Bountiful, escaping by bus. She meets a young woman, Thelma (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) on the bus and tells her story in lengthy conversation with her. At the penultimate stop, she even convinces the local sheriff (Devon Abner) to drive her the remaining leg of her journey. Of course she finds time hasn’t been kind to the town (long ago depleted by the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl), or the family homestead. Predictably her son and daughter-in-law catch up with her and take her home. Other roles include Roy (Arthur French), a ticket agent (Wade Dooley), and various travelers and bus employees (Pat Bowie, Russell Edge, Dalila Ali Rajah, Keiana Richard, Duane Shepard, Sr., and Desean Kevin Terry). And that’s about all that happens, accompanied by a healthy dollop of sentiment and a whole lot of heartfelt language. The production is ably directed by Michael Wilson, with meticulously detailed Scenic Design by Jeff Cowie, perfect vintage Costume Design by Van Broughton Ramsey, effective Lighting Design by Rui Rita, and Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada. This includes some intrusive and unnecessary piano tinkling to underline or underscore dramatic tension less appropriate for live theater than for the sort of thing seen on the Lifetime network, where, as noted above, this production found a home last season.

The simplicity of Foote’s basic story with its universal themes, despite that healthy dose of sentiment (and sometimes sentimentality) is alive and well and presently thriving at the Cutler Majestic Theater, in no small part because of its stellar cast. Initially a henpecked stereotype, Underwood, a Golden Globe nominee, comes into his own in the moving final scene with his mother at the family home. Williams, a Tony and Grammy Award nominee, courageously takes on one of the theater’s most unflattering roles. The rest of the cast, including the memorable Smollett-Bell and French, are superb. But it’s Tyson’s recreated Tony-winning and Emmy-nominated turn that is the island of sanity and serenity in this production. With more than eight decades of life experience from which to draw, she’s just plain astonishing. (Her reaction when she’s literally bowled over by some unexpected bad news is alone worth the price of admission). The play shows its age, but not the player. The work remains primarily a vehicle for an enduring star, starting with Gish sixty years ago, and Tyson surely makes it her own. Toward the end of the play, Ludie admits he should have taken his mother back to her home sooner. The same could be said for Tyson and Boston,


BLO's "Love Potion" or "Vin Herbe": Herbal Tease

The Greek Chorus in "The Love Potion"
(photo: Boston Lyric Opera)

Boston Lyric Opera’s current production of “Le Vin Herbé, translated as “The Love Potion”, is a bit of a tease; it’s not that more famous elixir. This work, by Frank Martin, centering on the romantic story of Tristan and Isolt (yes, the same coupling from yet another opera), is more obscure. As part of its Opera Annex program, BLO is continuing its policy of presenting both the more familiar and the less, as it follows its recent “Traviata” with this arcane work. It’s being given its fully staged Boston premiere in honor of the fortieth anniversary of the Swiss composer’s death. Based on the novel by Joseph Bédier written in 1900, “Roman de Tristan et Iseult”, (in turn based on a tale that dates back to the time of Arthur and his Guinevere, and even before that), it was previously performed in this area in a concert version in 1990 by the John Oliver Chorale. This production is being performed in a new translation by Hugh MacDonald (commissioned by the BLO) accompanied by the eight-member BLO Chamber Ensemble (seven strings and a piano). Continuing the company’s dedication to offering operatic works that are “not readily available…in evocative venues”, the performances are held in Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline. Also true to its other aim of extending opportunities for local talent to shine, ten out of the twelve singers are either current members or alumni of BLO’s fine Emerging Artists Program. The opera is in three parts with a total of eighteen scenes, clocking in at just under two intermission-less hours.

The story is that of the medieval princess Isolt (soprano Chelsea Basler), cursed as most such damsels seem to be with the dilemma of choosing between her duty and her love, in this case for Tristan (Jon Jurgens). Her mother (Heather Gallagher) gives the titular potion to Brangain (Michelle Trainor) for Isolt to use on her betrothed, King Mark (David McFerrin), but it falls into the hands of a maid who, thinking it wine, pours for Isolt and the king’s nephew Tristan, whose previous animosity for one another turns instantly to love (as these things do). The king, on learning of their love, condemns them to death but hasn’t the heart to execute it when he discovers them asleep and apart. Tristan, with a heavy dose of guilt, wanders away and giving up hope for Isolt marries another, Isolt of the White Hands (Rachel Hauge, apparently sharing a popular given name of the time), daughter of Duke Hoël (David Cushing). Later, mortally wounded in battle, Tristan sends his friend Kahedin (Omar Najmi) to bring his true love Isolt to him, furling white sails if successful, black if not. Isolt of the White Hands hears this, and later falsely tells Tristan that the ship is returning with black sails. He dies in grief, but our heroine does arrive, lies down beside him and joins him in death. Buried by King Mark in adjacent tombs, a living green branch miraculously grows out of Tristan’s tomb into Isolt’s (which continues to regenerate even as attempts are made to sever it) uniting them eternally.

As Joshua Rosenblum wrote in his article “The Other Tristan” about Martin’s “Le Vin Herbéin a recent issue of Opera News, Martin felt he had all the right in the world to approach this story from his own view and with music of his own time, especially with respect to the lushness of his harmonies. This work is more oratorio than opera, and thus by its very nature subject to a certain sameness, with the bulk of the story narrated not by the principals but by the chorus. In the roles of the lovers, Balsen and Jurgens were tremendously moving, as was the outstanding Trainor. The rest of the chorus, every one of them individually audible when making the rounds of the circular stage, were wonderful, including Yvon (Mara Bonde), Treasa (Tania Mandzy Inala), Denolenn (Brad Raymond) and Andret (David Wadden). Conductor David Angus led the chamber ensemble exquisitely, with a thrilling Set Design by Jim Noone, muted Costume Design by Nancy Leary, astounding Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel and Wig and Makeup Design by Jason Allen. But the star of the opera was unquestionably Stage Director David Schweizer, who made what could easily have become a very static work into a living, vibrant whole with ingenious and breathtakingly mysterious stagecraft.

The intriguing question before the performance began was just how wise a choice the venue would prove to be. The huge domed sanctuary could easily have become an acoustical nightmare with notes flying up to the celestial heights never to be heard again. Not to worry. A series of baffles undoubtedly helped contain them, and the presence of a crystalline central piece of the set design kept singers from being in the one spot where voices went dead or reverberated depending on whether a performer was facing toward or away from a segment of the audience. In the end, it succeeded as a resonant playing space in several senses of the term: an insert in the program, referencing the recent attack on renowned local Rabbi Mosheh Twersky in Jerusalem, served as a reminder of the significance of the use of the site as an exaltation of “the unifying force of the human spirit” through the arts and in particular through this performance of “The Love Potion”.


Fathom Events' "Billy Elliot": Tutu Twain

  Screened at Showcase Cinemas, Dedham, MA & other theaters; Encore at 7pm Tues. Nov.18th

Liam Mower & Elliot Hanna in and  (both) as "Billy Elliot"
(photo: Fathom Events)
There’s a magical moment (one of many) in the musical “Billy Elliot” when there occurs a dream sequence in which the young Billy dances a pas de deux with his older self. It was even more amazing in the recent HD broadcast of this work when Elliot Hanna, currently portraying the title role, danced this number with the now mature Liam Mower, the original Billy from the phenomenal London success in 2005. It was previously lauded as an Oscar-nominated non-musical film in 2000, and subsequently in 2008 as a Broadway musical, winning ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ten Drama Desk Awards, also including Best Musical. It ran in New York for over three years. Now it’s enjoying yet another success with an HD broadcast of a performance from London’s Victoria Palace recorded this past September 28th ; it made history as the first ever event cinema broadcast that was the number one box office hit in the U.K. And what an event, as it included over two dozen actors who have played the title role in a mash-up finale.

The story, adapted from the film by Lee Hall (who also wrote the lyrics) from his own screenplay, featuring a musical score by Elton John, concerns the 1984 miners’ strike in a Northeastern England mining town in County Durham. It centers around the tale of the young Billy who transitions from the boxing ring into a ballet class, with understandingly fierce initial reactions from the workers from his blue-collar neighborhood. Billy Elliot (the remarkably talented Hanna) finds support in his dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Ruthie Henshall), his brother Tony (Chris Grahamson), Billy’s best friend Michael (Zach Atkinson) and his Grandma (the showstopping Ann Emery repeating her role from 2005); eventually, even his working-class Dad (Deka Walmsley) is won over. As is the audience, especially whenever Henshall, Hanna and Atkinson take the stage.

The story is a strong one, but the score is what really makes this “Billy” soar, from the rousing “Once We Were Kings” (“we all go together when we go”), to the exhilarating paean to performance, “Electricity” (“I really can’t explain it, I haven’t got the words…it’s like forgetting , losing who you are, and at the same time something makes you whole”) to the anthem “The Stars Look Down”, a reference to the A. J. Cronin novel which inspired this tale (“and the stars look down and know the pain and…lead to where the light shines again, where we‘ll stand as one”). Then there’s the unforgettably hilarious turn by Billy and his buddy Michael (“If you wanna be a dancer, dance…what we need is in-div-id-ual-ity”), the most life-affirming number in many a year. Hanna is stupendous throughout the show, but briefly meets his match in the person of Atkinson. Never has dancing in the aisles been more tempting.

This production, directed by the original helmer Stephen Daldry, and re-directed for film by Brett Sullivan, looks fabulous on the big screen. The Set Design by Ian MacNeil (notoriously temperamental in its New York previews) is as wondrous as ever, with fine Costume Design by Nicky Gillibrand, intricate Lighting Design by Rick Fisher, and effective Sound Design by Paul Arditti. Of course, the crucial Choreography by Peter Darling is as stunning as it gets. With a technical crew this great, backing up a cast full of talent, musical theaters is alive and (literally) kicking.

Thus it was great news to hear of the HD broadcast on this side of the pond. Even better news: if you missed it this time around, never fear. As noted above, it’s being repeated on Tuesday November 18th at, as the saying goes, a theater near you.


Huntington's "Awake and Sing": Snooze and Schmooze?

Correction: As noted in the comment at the end of this review, the character of Bessie indeed does smash her father Jacob's records in the original script. The incorrect reference to a lack of stage directions has been removed. Snoozing indeed, on the part of this critic!

Will LeBow, Stephen Schnetzer, Michael Goldsmith, Lori Wilner & Eric T. Miller
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

At the announcement that Huntington Theater Company was to produce the 1935 play, Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing”, theatergoers might have been forgiven for imagining they were in a time warp of sorts. Huntington kicked off their current season with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (based on a 1967 film) and is scheduled to present “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1950) later this season. Additionally, they might well have mused as to whether such a presumably dated vehicle as “Awake and Sing” would induce sleep or seem like insignificant small talk. Not to worry, this piece has aged well (with some reservations), now being revived in honor of Odets’ birthday, who would have been 100 this year. It’s the first full-length play he wrote, considered by many to be his greatest (though some favor “Golden Boy”). It didn’t win any Tony Awards in its first time out, as they didn’t exist then, but the 2006 revival earned eight nominations and won two Tony Awards, for Best Revival of a Play and Best Costumes. At its core is the conflict between capitalists and communists, as the depression era produced economic crises and social struggle. The goal of the individual for self fulfillment vs. one’s family’s expectations is a call for action, from Isaiah: “Awake and sing all ye who dwell in the dust…and the earth shall cast out the dead”.

As the playwright once wrote about this work, all of his characters have in common a basic “struggle for life amidst petty conditions”. The action takes place in a Jewish walk-up in the Bronx in the 1930’s. The central role is that of the matriarch of the Berger family, who describes herself as both mother and father in the home, Bessie (Lori Wilner), a realist obsessed with social appearances and deeply frightened by the evictions she sees in the neighborhood. Orbiting around her are the remaining members of the family, most of them idealists, her subdued husband Myron (David Wohl), their daughter Hennie (Annie Purcell), their son Ralph (Michael Goldsmith) and Uncle Morty (Stephen Schnetzer), as well as Bessie’s father Jacob (Will LeBow), and two of Hennie’s suitors, Moe Axelrod (Eric T. Miller) and Sam Feinschreiber (Nael Nacer). The only other character is the janitor Schlosser (Kevin Fennessy). Through various crises, the family is at odds to preserve their basic dignity. As Odets wrote about Bessie, though she wants the best for her children, she is stymied by her own fears and panic. It’s a theme found in other playwrights such as O’Neill and Williams: a mother wanting her children’s survival, but sometimes ensuring their eventual destruction. As superbly directed by Melia Bensussen, this cast embodies ensemble acting at its finest, with terrific star turns, most impressively LeBow in a towering performance, and Wilner with her unforgettable portrayal. They’re all memorable (though Goldsmith’s delivery is sometimes too rapid for the acoustics of the house). Some of Bensussen’s directorial decisions might be deemed controversial,  but she does make the extended family seem heartbreakingly real. The technical credits are up to Huntington’s demanding standards, from the evocative Scenic Design by James Noone to the wonderful Costume Design by Michael Krass to the Lighting Design by Brian J. Lilienthal and the Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. The Set Design, with Sacco and Vanzetti posters and newspaper headlines, is especially effective.

While it still speaks to us today, it’s often does so as though in a foreign language. As one might expect of a play that’s eighty years old, there are more than a few odd colloquialisms: “bughouse” (crazy), “plunks” (dollars) or perhaps the most outstanding one, “foxie-woxie” (?) and shockingly casual politically incorrect terms, even for Jews (“mockie”). Then there are such ethnic phrases as “you gave the dog eat?”. Yet some of Odets’ dialogue is too poetic to seem natural to these less educated characters, such as Ralph’s final admission: “The night he died. I saw it like a thunderbolt! I saw he was dead and I was born! I swear to God, I’m one week old! I want the whole city to hear it - fresh blood, arms. We got ‘em. We‘re glad we’re living”. Odets wanted his audiences to leave the theater glad to be alive. Written while he was an actor with the activist Group Theater in New York, before he succumbed to the temptations of Hollywood, the point of the play is best expressed by Ralph’s earlier exclamation that “life should not be printed on dollar bills”. So who would have guessed that this play from the seemingly distant past would strike us as painfully relevant today? Like many a treasured antique, despite showing its age, it might well prove to be of more value to us now than ever before.


Fathom Events' "Of Mice and Men": A Vole in the Hay

Chris O'Dowd & James Franco in "Of Mice and Men"
(photo: National Theatre Live)

Most current and former high school students are probably already familiar with the story of two itinerant laborers, one a bit of a control freak and the other a gentle giant who didn’t know his own strength when petting a tiny rodent, a newborn pup, or a soft lock of hair. They are the lead characters in the 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men” written by Pulitzer Prize winner John Steinbeck, who once referred to it as “a kind of playable novel.” Thus it should come as no surprise that within less than a year after its publication it appeared on the Broadway stage, adapted by none other than Steinbeck himself. It was swiftly followed by a 1939 film version, subsequently remade in 1992. In play form, however, it was not revived on Broadway until 1974, then unproduced until just this past season, when three stars from other artistic worlds aligned, all in their Broadway debuts. It was this version that National Theatre Live chose as its first worldwide HD broadcast from a venue other than London and shown at a movie theater near you. Nominated for two Tonys, and directed by Anna D. Shapiro (a Tony winner herself as Best Director for “August: Osage County”), it was a wise choice, not least for the celebrity of its players.

The original working title of the book was “Something That Happened”, which is rather detached for such a dark and ominous work. The book, film and play all take place in the 1930’s in Salinas Valley, California (“just south of Solidad”, or “solitude”), where many migrant workers suffered, poor but proud, from homelessness and hunger. The basic story centers on the relationship between the cynical George Milton (James Franco, of “127 Hours”, “Milk”, and a few dozen other varied projects), and the friend for whom he cares, the mentally challenged and ironically named Lennie Small (Chris O’Dowd, of “Bridesmaids” and his personally-created British television series “Moone Boy”). The pair share the American dream of their someday having a small place of their own. They move from job to job escaping the consequences of Lennie’s unpredictable actions. At their current job on a ranch, the boss’ daughter-in-law (identified only as “Curley’s Wife”), a very flirtatious woman (Leighton Meester of “Gossip Girl”) takes an interest in them. While George refers to her as a “tramp”, Lennie’s reaction is simpler: “gosh, she’s pretty”. Thus begins an inexorable spiral into the “something that happened”, a tragic something indeed.

The casting of Franco (surprisingly tender when it counts) and O’Dowd (deservedly nominated for Best Actor Tony and Drama Desk Awards for this performance) was serendipitous, but the real standout is the supporting character of Candy (former Tony winner Jim Norton), who steals every scene he’s in, even when silent. Meester is also fine as the flirt oblivious to the danger at hand, as are the remaining members of the cast, Slim (a hulking but understanding Jim Parrack), Crooks (a heartbreaking Ron Cephas Jones), Curley (an anxious Alex Morf), Carlson (an amusing Joel Marsh Garland), the Boss (a menacing Jim Ortlieb), and Whit (a canny James McMenamin). The technical crew are all terrific in their contributions, from the complicated Set Design by Todd Rosenthal, to the eerily atmospheric Tony-nominated Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman, to the Original Music Composition by David Singer, Costume Design by Suttirat Larlarb, Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, and extraordinarily choreographed Fight Direction by Thomas Schall.

As Steinbeck admitted, this is less a historic work (though loosely based on an actual event he witnessed) than a symbolic one. Many critics saw it as too sentimental, even as they described the characters as more animal than human. But as the literary essayist Susan Shillinglaw once noted, friendship is portrayed as “the most enduring relationship, love at its highest pitch”, but also an escape from home, marriage, commitment. This echoed what writer Frederick C. Mills wrote about these men who hated to travel on the road alone: “denied wives, or families, or circles of sympathetic friends, this feeling can only be partially satisfied through the institution of partners.” Although one of the workers says to George that it’s “funny how you and him string along together”, Steinbeck made sure it was clear that George had a tendency to visit the occasional brothel, lest we draw some other conclusions about this male bonding. But it can’t be denied that their bonding was a special one, even if George was a bit too overbearing in his caring for Lennie. In the end, this is an enduring and deeply moving testament to the true American spirit.


Bay Colony's "Christmas Carol": The Solo of Wit

This production, with the entire original cast, will be encored this holiday season at these sites:
Cape Cod Community College (Dec.9), Newton Presbyterian Church (Dec.10), First Church of Boston (Dec.12,13,14) and Plymouth Center for the Arts (Dec.18,19,20,21)

Neil McGarry in Bay Colony Shakespeare Company's "Christmas Carol"

Every Christmas season, as predictable as the swallows’ spring return to Capistrano, there arrive at one’s theatrical doorstep (or one’s door knocker) an abundance of productions of Charles Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol”, and this year is no exception. Among the more typical megacast and musical versions, however, there is one exception, that of the fledgling local troupe, The Bay Colony Shakespeare Company. While this critic reads the original novella every Christmas, the prospect of attending yet another staged version was daunting, and had prompted in past reviews the headline “Three Ghosts Walked into a Bar…”

Until this version. This is not your grandmother’s “Christmas Carol”, but she surely would have loved it. The striking difference that makes this production stand out from all the others is that all the roles, with one brief exception, are filled by one actor. And not just any actor, but the company’s Artistic Director Neil McGarry, so memorable in and as their recent “Hamlet”, now in another demanding, astounding, and charming performance. Under the insightful direction of the company’s Associate Director Ross MacDonald, this “Carol” is worth singing about, for it supplies a crucial voice most other versions miss, namely that of Dickens himself. From the moment McGarry arrives onstage literally carrying the baggage of Scrooge’s life, we’re struck by the incomparably wise and witty language of the author. Where other productions tend to stick to the well-known words of various characters, this one depends much more on the literate beauty and deviously comic viewpoints one appreciated only on the page, until now. Such asides as having “often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now”, or “awaking in the middle of a prodigious tough snore” are hilarious examples. The star of this version is none other than Dickens himself, in the person of the narrator, and in that role McGarry truly shines.

McGarry is not your typical Scrooge, given his youth and good looks, but he manages to convince, with intricate gestures, fluid movement and seemingly infinite facial expressions, not only in the pivotal role of the old miser but in all the supporting roles save one, with wondrous turns as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, the long-suffering Bob Cratchit, and especially the small role of the boy sent to buy the prize turkey. Wisely, avoiding what could have been unintentionally funny, only the love of his young life, Belle, is portrayed by another actor, by the offstage voice of Erica Simpson, who also provides some music and very effective multiple sound effects. With few props (a scarf that doubles as a blindfold, a coat rack that doubles as a Christmas tree, street lamps and a trunk), and an almost bare stage, stripped to its bare essentials, the story has never been so alive and real. To see and hear McGarry exclaim “Oh, there never was such a goose!” is absolutely brilliant. He runs the gamut of emotions from Scrooge’s first horror at the vision of Marley’s face to the uniquely believable transformation at the end. Not only is this performance a triumph of memorization, it’s the most energetic effort seen on any stage thus far this season; at one point, at the Fezziwigs’ ball, one could have sworn there were ten lords a-leaping.

Mention should be made that this is a production unafraid to reference the religious meaning of the season, with Dickens’ quote “and he took a child and set him in the midst of them” and “he (Scrooge) went to church” near the end of the storytelling. As Scrooge finally puts it, “I am not the man I was”, and neither are we when reminded of the true meaning of Christmas, especially for those who believe, but even for those who do not. This is “A Christmas Carol” for the ages, and for theatergoers of all ages as well. Anyone who misses this production, to quote Dickens himself, “should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart”. If you haven’t ordered tickets yet, what the dickens are you waiting for?


Fathom Events' "Carmen": Torrid Adoring

Anita Rachvelishvili as "Carmen"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)
Fathom Event screened at Regal Cinemas at Independence Mall in Kingston on 11/01/14, to be    encored Wednesday 11/05/14, also at a theater near you, followed on 11/06 by "Of Mice and Men"

Widely known (even among those who aren’t opera buffs) for its famous “Toreador” aria, Bizet’s “Carmen” is a much-beloved favorite of many fans, typically listed among everyone’s top five operas. This is despite the fact that the titular heroine isn’t a particularly nice or even sympathetic character. In the current Metropolitan Opera production, Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili plays the flirtatious Carmen. The story revolves around her relationships with the solid soldier Don José (tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko) and torrid bullfighting hero Escamillo (baritone Ildar Abdrazakov), with some plot points delivered by the village girl Michaëla (soprano Anita Hartig). Ms. Rachvelishvili has virtually made a career of late playing her interpretation of Carmen at opera houses throughout the world (including two seasons ago, in this same production, at the Met).

As most music lovers will know, the libretto is a rather steamy one, from the first appearance of the gypsy girl Carmen. Virtually ignored by Don José (who loves Michaëla) until he arrests Carmen for fighting, she seduces him to gain her freedom. Subsequently she declares he must prove his love by deserting the army, which he does. Later in the gypsy camp, her ardor diminishes as she now professes love for the toreador Escamillo. Michaë la arrives to tell Don José his mother is dying, and they depart together, Don José threatening he will see Carmen again. In the final scene Don José confronts Carmen, trying to win her back, but when he fails…well, this is opera, so one wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t end happily. And that’s the tempestuous tale, told over four acts. For this opera to be so popular with such a simplistic story, there must obviously be some approachable music, and indeed there is. The success of a production of “Carmen”, as with many operatic works, thus largely depends on the quality of the singing and conducting, not necessarily on how deeply involved an audience is on an emotional level.

In this production, though, there’s enough fire and passion in the singing and acting to involve an audience, despite the somber and stark sets and costumes. Rachvelishvili and her three co-stars make this more than a mere potboiler, with Hartig a standout. It must be said, however, in these days of close-ups and operatic verisimilitude, that only Hartig looked the part. The performances by the rest of the cast were fine, including the roles of Moralès (John Moore), Zuniga (Keith Miller), Frasquita (Kiri Deonarine) Mercédès (Jennifer Johnson Cano), Le Dancaïre (Malcolm Mackenzie) and Le Remendado (Eduardo Valdes). Between each act there was an appropriately sultry pas de deux performed by Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey. Visually, the production moved well under the able direction (of this Live in HD broadcast) of Matthew Diamond, with sensitive conducting by Pablo Heras-Casado. The Production was by Richard Eyre, with Set & Costume Design by Rob Howell, Lighting Design by Peter Mumford, and Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon.

Never fear if you missed this “Carmen”; as noted above, the encore broadcast of the performance will take place Wednesday November 5th at 6:30pm at a theater near you.