Met Opera's "Don Giovanni": Meanwhile, Back in Hell

"Don Giovanni" in Hell
(photo: Met Opera) 

A serial womanizer on the brink of self-destruction? Sounds as though ripped from the newspaper headlines...of 1787. We may have been all-consumed these past months with the fiery political campaigns, which have left many of us feeling as though we were living in one endless hell, but for its current HD broadcast, the Metropolitan Opera has chosen a popular favorite as a partial antidote. The opera is about that womanizer, namely Don Giovanni, one of Mozart's finest works, first performed in 1787 in Prague, reaching American audiences about forty years later. While true to the libretto by Lorenzo DaPonte, it simultaneously breaks new ground. The opera has had its champions over the years, from Tchaikovsky to George Bernard Shaw to Stendahl, blending as it does the comic and serious into what Mozart himself called a “dramma giocoso” or jocular drama. It's a story portraying the timeless battle of the sexes and classes.. Don Giovanni is still the narcissistic playboy, still the self-destructive sex symbol, who will ultimately meet his dramatic comeuppance, as indeed will certain politicians.

In a recent issue of Opera News, the plot was summed up in a single sentence, paraphrased here: In Seville, the servant Leporello (bass-baritone Adam Plachetka) keeps watch as his master, the titular bed-hopper Don Giovanni (baritone Simon Keenlyside) is pursued by a lover, Donna Elvira (soprano Malin Bystrom), whom he spurned, a husband, Masetto (bass Matthew Rose), of a woman he assaulted, Zerlina (mezzo Serena Malfi), a noblewoman, Donna Anna (soprano Hibla Gerzmava), who spurned him and whose father, the Commendatore (bass Kwangchul Youn), he killed, and her fiancé Don Ottavio (tenor Paul Appleby); but it's the murdered man's graveside statue that finally drags the unrepentant philanderer down to hell. That's it in a nutshell, with almost three hours of glorious music.

As with virtually all of Mozart's twenty-two operas, however, it's not the plot that matters most; it's all about the music, both sung and played. The company excelled in both of these departments, with memorable contributions by the Met Opera Orchestra led by Conductor Fabio Luisi and the singing by the entire cast, a varied ensemble. Every one of the principals gets a chance to shine in a solo aria or two, and none disappoint. Keenlyside, who makes an unforgettably dashing figure in the title role, almost manages to make us forgive the Don's excesses with his superb voice and believable acting. All three women are equally memorable, with Bystrom, Malfi and Gerzmava each delivering lengthy arias in great displays of technique and sound. The same could be said for Rose, Youn and Appleby in their supporting roles. The hit of the performance was probably Plachetka's Leporello which is perhaps as it should be, though it's a tough call in such an excellent cast as this was.  The Production was by Michael Grandage, with technical aspects suitably in harmony, from the Set Design and Costume Design by Christopher Oram to the dramatic Lighting Design by Paule Constable. The HD Host was Joyce DiDonato and the HD Broadcast Director was Matthew Diamond.

This was one of the company's best offerings, with a score full of hit tunes and a cast that really delivers them.

Fathom Events will have an Encore presentation next Weds. Oct. 26th at a theater near you.


New Rep's "Good": The Evil of Banality

Benjamin Evett, Michael Kaye, Alex Schneps, Tim Spears & Will Madden in "Good"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Both ethical and theatrical ambiguity are at the heart of the 1981 play-with-music Good by C. P. Taylor, now playing at New Rep Theatre (a co-production with the Boston Center of American Performance). Described as a work that is “not political philosophy but tragedy inspired by historical events”, it traces the concurrent downward moral spiral and upward professional spiral of an unexceptional fictional character, 1930's German Professor John Halder (Michael Kaye), as he incrementally accepts the insidiously growing reach of the Third Reich. Echoing Hannah Arendt's controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem : A Report on the Banality of Evil, it's an exploration of the often confounding truth that apparently “good” people (“whatever that means”, as one character says) are capable of extraordinary malice as a result of, among other things, apathy and denial.

When we first meet Halder he is a seemingly moderate intellectual, a sort of musical Walter Mitty with a fantasy life revolving around the frequent hearing of music in his head (opening with Bing Crosby's rendition of I'm Always Chasing Rainbows). He also happens to have written a novel about euthanasia that comes to the attention of some rising Nazi leaders. His mother (Judith Chaffee), conveniently for this story, is more and more being overtaken by her dementia, and his wife Helen (Christine Power) is largely apathetic. There are mundane marital and matriarchal squabbles, as well as more philosophical ones with his Jewish psychiatrist friend Maurice (Tim Spears). He develops a relationship with one of his students, Anne (Casey Tacker) and is offered a position on the Committee for Research into Hereditary Disorders by Oberleader Bouller (Benjamin Evett), an ostensibly benign entity created for purely scientific purposes. This new job morphs, as do most of the peripheral agencies of the time, into a significantly more insidious one, all the while requiring moral compromises of our anti-hero. The other roles in this dangerous game include Adolf Eichman (Evett again), a Doctor (Jesse Garlick), a nun (Lily Linke), Freddie (Will Madden), Elizabeth (Linke again), a Dispatch Rider (Garlick again), and Bok, (Alex Schneps), a character with a strangely strong Bostonian accent. And, of course, Hitler (Schneps again), herein frequently portrayed in a Chaplinesque satirical manner (not completely successfully, any more than Chaplin himself or Mel Brooks ever did). The balance of the play is by and large predictable.

At one point Halder solves one of his own personal family issues by putting his mother out of his misery; at another, he questions whether his whole life has been a performance. It's an expressionistic work with a stream of unconsciousness format that develops the plot via frequent trains of thought rather than chronology, thus more fragmented, unstructured and, on the whole, undisciplined and even hyperventilated. That said, under Jim Petosa's direction, it's a pleasure to watch such a well-developed turn by Kaye (always on stage) and his energetic supporting cast, notably Spears, Chaffee and the always-amazing Evett. If things are here and there a bit over-the-top (and sometimes a lot), there's a lot of intelligent work afoot. And while this production doesn't go in for much subtlety, it could of course be argued that Naziism itself completely lacked nuance. Halder's musical fantasy life runs the gamut from yodeling to klezmer to jazz (described as “decadent negroid swamp jungle music”) to operetta (You Are My Heart's Delight and The Drinking Song) to Dietrich's Falling in Love Again to classical (Wagner's Das Reingold, Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring) to a Jewish wedding song and My Blue Heaven. His intellectual outlook fails to condemn his first book-burning (“as long as I keep my copy”) and his idealism (“common interest before self”) has its own hierarchy as he claims “I have a whole scale of things that could worry me: the Jews and their problems....are very far down, for Christ's sake...way down the scale”. For Christ's sake indeed.

At the end of the rainbow, there is happiness: “I am happy.....absolutely”, Halder haltingly declaims. He has accomplished his role “humanely” and asserts “we're not monsters”. So much for massive denial. Is he then a monster or clown? Or, as Arendt put it, someone who learned to sing his conscience to sleep, or just a joiner? And why must we insist there cannot be a dichotomy? Why must it be either/or? Cannot a buffoon also be evil? It's important to keep in mind that this is an agenda-driven work of fiction and interpretation, with some convenient plot devices to maximize theatrical effect. Even the placement of the cast on stage virtually all the time, along with some audience members on stage for the whole performance in a choir-stall or more likely jury-style set-up is an underlying element to involve us all. The creative team is essential to the foreboding storm, from the simple Scenic Design by Jiyoung Han to the Costume Design by Megan Mills and Theona H. White to the effective Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle and Sound Design by Aubrey Dube. The visual book-burning, with the cast's hands evoking flames, is a striking, stunning image.

Today, we may bemoan not just the banality of evil but also the evil of banality. As New Rep's seasonal tagline says, “the past is prologue”. Who can overlook the present heart-felt if misdirected cries by some of the public: “give us back our country”? The political arena still requires choices; life demands choices. As Camus said, “Not to decide is to decide”. At one juncture in the play, Anne opines: “I don't believe in evil”; St. Paul, looking inwardly, saw it differently. And there is plenty of proof that one ought to believe in it, and the influence it has on the banal. We are in real life, as was Halder in fiction, surrounded by profiles in cowardice. The program for this play states that the current electoral mess has roots in such times as are portrayed in it. (One might also point to Orwell's Animal Farm). The vision of Halder's friend Maurice, of a weed struggling to emerge from its being trapped in concrete, is harrowing: “Concrete rots in the end; it can wait”.


Met Opera "Tristan and Isolde": Fifty Shades of Grey

Nina Stemme in "Tristan and Isolde"
(photo: Met Opera)

Richard Wagner's monumental work Tristan and Isolde was the opening production of the current season by the Metropolitan Opera. It's monumental on the basis of its glorious music as well as its demands on the stamina of both performers and audience alike, at nearly five hours in length, despite featuring only a half dozen singing roles and a fairly simple and concise plot.

Isolde (soprano Nina Stemme), an Irish princess, is being transported to Cornwall, for her wedding to King Marke (bass Rene Pape), on the ship of his nephew Tristan (tenor Stuart Skelton). Her maid, Brangane (mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova), tries to calm her when Tristan's companion Kurwenal (bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin) ridicules the Irish women. Isolde suggests that she and Tristan drink from a cup containing poison but is in fact a love potion mixed by Brangane. After landing, Isolde waits for a rendezvous with Tristan while the king is off on a hunting party. Brangäne warns her about spies, particularly the jealous knight Melot (tenor Neal Cooper). When Tristan appears, Isolde passionately welcomes him. They agree that they feel secure in the night but Brangane's call warns that it will soon be daylight. Kurwenal rushes in to warn them that the king has returned, led by Melot, denouncing the lovers. Marke declares that it was Tristan who urged him in the first place to pursue Isolde and can't understand how he could dishonor him in such a way. Tristan cannot answer and asks Isolde if she will follow him to her death. When she accepts, Melot attacks Tristan, who falls wounded into Kurwenal’s arms. Later, the mortally ill Tristan is tended by Kurwenal. A shepherd (tenor Alex Richardson) inquires about his master, and Kurwenal explains that only Isolde, with her magic arts, could save him. The shepherd agrees to play a cheerful tune on his pipe as soon as he sees a ship approaching. Tristan, hallucinating, imagines that it is night when he will reunite with Isolde. He thanks Kurwenal for his devotion, then envisions Isolde’s ship approaching. He tears off his bandages, letting his wounds bleed. Isolde rushes in, and he falls, dying, in her arms. Kurwenal stabs Melot before he is killed himself by the king’s soldiers. Marke, overwhelmed with grief at the death of Tristan, had come to pardon the lovers. Isolde, transfigured, does not hear, and envisions Tristan beckoning her to the world beyond. She sinks, dying upon his body.

Stemme, universally known for her interpretation of Isolde, commandingly proved just how deserving she is of this renown. Her flawless singing was indelibly effective, enhanced by powerful acting and presence (especially in the final act's Liebestod). She was perfectly matched by Skelton, Nikitin and Pape, all of them making for an unforgettable ensemble, exquisitely conducted by Simon Rattle. Would that the same could be said for the production, which was ugly, bizarre and confusing. Most of the story took place (at least seemingly) on the ship conveying Isolde to Cornwall, then in a warehouse containing depth charges, finally in a hospital. All in fifty or more monotonously boring shades of grey, pewter and black, both in sets and costumes (save for a couple of white starched uniforms and one velvet dress the color of oxblood). There were some distracting choices, such as a silent Tristan as a boy, and in the most egregious and wrong-headed portrayal of Isolde's death, meant to be a transfiguring union with the dead Tristan, but reduced to a graphically disturbing suicide. For the record, the Production was by Mariusz Trelinski, Set Design by Boris Kudlicka, Costume Design by Marek Adamski and Lighting Design by Marc Heinz, the last being the only acceptable contribution to the proceedings.

On a scale of one to ten, give the visuals a minus one, and the singers and orchestra an eleven.

Fathom Events will re-broadcast this HD event this Wednesday October 12 at a theater near you.


Goodspeed's "Chasing Rainbows": Judy, Judy, Judy!

The Cast of "Chasing Rainbows, the Road to Oz"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Judy Garland (nee Frances Ethel Gumm) put it best: “The history of my life is in my songs”. Thus we have the new bio-musical Chasing Rainbows, the Road to Oz now being presented by Goodspeed Musicals. Originally developed at Goodspeed's Johnny Mercer Writers' Colony, and first presented by Flat Rock Theater Company in North Carolina, the show covers her formative years from vaudeville to Hollywood, from 1927-1938 (age five to sixteen). She made her theatrical debut at the ripe old age of thirty months, as Baby Frances, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. This might be legitimately viewed, at least in a chronological sense, as the first in a trilogy (continued in The Wizard of Oz and Wicked), or maybe not, since this is really the back story and a prequel. Since its thirty-three numbers use songs made familiar by Judy herself, as well as some other numbers contemporary to her life span, it qualifies as that most derivative of musical theater forms, the “jukebox” musical (one that sorely lacks an original score). As such it shares the weakest aspect of such shows, namely that songs are inserted, often arbitrarily, without any integral connection to the arc of the Book by Mark Acito, who also co-wrote the recent Broadway musical Allegiance, (recorded by Fathom Events and coming this season to a movie theater near you).

Yet, as Judy was quoted above, many of the numbers tell the story of her life, so aren't quite as shoe-horned as with other such shows. The story was Conceived by Tina Marie Casamento Libby with Music Adapted by David Libby, and they've done their research well, such as the “Jitterbug” number recorded for The Wizard of Oz but scrapped, her father Frank (Kevin Earley) and his rumored personal issues, the allergic reaction to tin man makeup by Buddy Ebsen (Bryan Thomas Hunt) and the competition with Shirley Temple (Lea Mancarella) and Deanna Durbin (Claire Griffin). It's an unabashedly old-fashioned and sentimental show, yet it works, in large part due to an incredibly gifted cast. Even they can't rescue such lines as “rainbows don't last forever, but neither does the rain”, or the many (way too many) Gumm jokes (e.g.“Gumm, as in chewed up and spit out”). Then again there are more clever asides, such as several lines for George Jessel (Gary Milner) and L. B. Mayer (Michael McCormick): “This is Hollywood, why would we want 'different and original'?”.

The show is most reminiscent of the musical “Gypsy”, but with a less controlling mother in the person of Ethel Gumm (Sally Wilfert) supervising The Three Gumm sisters, Mary Jane (Griffin again), Virginia (Piper Birney) and Frances “Baby” Gumm, the youngest, (Ella Briggs, a real standout). The older versions of the Gumm Sisters are Mary Jane (Lucy Horton), Virginia (Andrea Laxton) and Frances (Ruby Rakos). Also featured are Karen Mason in two roles (Kay Koverman and Ma Lawlor, Mickey Rooney (Michael Wartella), Lana Turner (Berklea Going) and Clark Gable (Danny Lindgren). Obviously with such a large cast, there's not much room for subtle character development. As Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, with Music Director Michael O'Flaherty rounding out his twenty-fifth Goodspeed season, and Orchestrations by Dan DeLange, as well as Choreography by Chris Bailey, Lighting Design by Ken Billington, Sound Design by Jay Hilton, Scenic Design by Kristen Robinson and Costume Design by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, the technical aspects are all superb. This is less a dance show than a singing one, and therein lies its success. With a series of numbers like I Can't Give You Anything but Love, You Made Me Love You, Broadway Rhythm, and, of course, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, all one needs is a cast who can sing.

And what a singing cast this is. Every one of them, individually and in chorus, are perfection, from the stellar leads to the briefest cameo roles, threatening to blow the roof of the theater off with their pipes. It would be criminal to single out one belter among so many fabulous voices, but it would also be criminal not to mention the breakout performance of Ruby Rakos in the role of a lifetime as the immortal Garland. While she's prettier than the role is described, with Mayer crudely referring to her being fat, (sounding eerily contemporary, no?), echoing the expression plus le change, plus la meme chose, she's totally believable from Judy's rocky start to her more confidant self; even her vocal chops grow along the way to the end of the rainbow with its pot of gold. Once in a great while a performer leaves an incandescent memory, and Rakos creates an unforgettable “Ruby's Turn”. Someday, on display in the Smithsonian, there just might be another famous pair of Ruby slippers.


ART's "Plough & Stars": Going Brogue

James Hayes & Ciaran O'Brien in "The Plough and the Stars"
(photo:  Ros Kavanagh)

On this, the 90th anniversary of Sean O'Casey's play The Plough and the Stars, Dublin's Abbey Theatre (where the work had its world premiere in 1926) is presenting the tragedy at American Repertory Theatre. The third play in the playwright's “Dublin Trilogy”, it followed his Shadow of a Gunman in 1923 and Juno and the Paycock in 1924. The title of this final part of the triplet references the Irish Citizen Army's flag featuring what is known in the U.S as the Big Dipper, but in Britain and Ireland as “the plough and the stars” (meaning a free Ireland would control the destiny of everything from the earth to the sky). O'Casey dedicated the play thus: To the gay laugh of my mother, at the gate of the grave, a quintessential Irish memento mori  if there ever was one. The work covers events leading up to the Easter Rising, in four acts. If it's unfamiliar to American theatergoers today, a brief synopsis should suffice.

At the flat of Jack Clitheroe (Ian-Lloyd Anderson), a bricklayer, and his wife Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan), Fluther Good (David Ganly), a trade unionist carpenter, a former heavy drinker now on the wagon, is fixing the lock on the door. Charwoman Mrs. Gogan (Janet Moran) delivers a new hat, a gift for Nora. Nora's uncle Peter Flynn (James Hayes), a laborer, and Jack's radical cousin The Young Covey (Ciaran O'Brien), a fitter, argue. Nora comes in, and Jack is suddenly informed he is pressed back into the service of the Irish Citizen Army with a promotion, of which he was previously unaware, since the letter informing him of this never reached him. Mrs. Gogan's daughter Mollser (Rachel Gleeson) who is dying of tuberculosis comes in, after her mother heads for a political meeting. In a public house Jack and others carry in the flag, while Fluther decides to go off with the prostitute Rosie (Nyree Yergainharsian). On Easter Monday, opening day of what would come to be known as the aforementioned Easter Rising, Bessie Burgess (Hilda Fay), a Protestant street vendor, gloats about what she foresees as the rebels' defeat. Jack ignores Nora's plea to stay with her and goes off to fight. What follows is a string of tragedies not to be revealed here, involving Nora, Mollser, Jack and, ironically, Bessie.

It's fitting that the play ends in irony (especially with respect to the fate of the only major Protestant character), as this was typical of O'Casey. When first produced, it hit so close to home that riots broke out in the theater. Much ink has been spilt over how naturalistic and realistic vs. idealistic O'Casey's trilogy is. This current wondrous cast of fourteen is a wonder to behold and to hear, though the brogue can at times be impenetrable. This is no criticism of the actors, as the previous Abbey Theatre production seen in Boston in 1976, with legendary luminaries such as Cyril Cusack and Siobhan McKenna, (not to mention Sorcha Cusack as Nora, now appearing as Mrs. McCarthy, the parish secretary in the Father Brown television series) was equally difficult to understand at times. It would behoove a theatergoer to read the play first in print in order to overcome the language difficulty. (Full disclosure: this critic is of Irish descent and still had problems with the dialect). The brogue is at times all too authentic to absorb, but no matter, as the superb acting skills of this indelible ensemble masterfully convey all their hopes and fears.

This production, as controversially Directed by Sean Holmes, has Set Design by Jon Bausor, Costume Design by Catherine Fay, Lighting Design by Paul Keogan, and Music and Sound Design by Phillip Stewart. Featured aspects of present day Dublin including modern dress and television, which perhaps make the play more universal, can also come across as distractingly auteurist touches. One such concept is the use of the rock song Everybody Speaks, Nobody Hears (a phrase first penned by G.K. Chesterton) and other contemporary music, sometimes sung live with hand mikes. All of the characters break the fourth wall, often speaking to the audience rather than one another, which can be off-putting when dialogue is declaimed. Yet it's a fact that O'Casey frequently has his characters speak of themselves in the third person. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't.

Overall, the magic surely works in the current production of the classic play, since the broad historical events and high-toned rhetoric of the events taking place don't take center stage. It's the tale of ordinary people being impacted by those extraordinary events, which is the genius of the playwright. His focus was not on the epic but on the everyday lives of those simple people. As Nora puts it, she “risked more for love than they would risk for hate”. It's a powerful message when delivered with the eloquence of the ordinary.


Trinity Rep's "Beowulf": Fang in Cheek

The Cast of "Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage"
(photo: Trinity Rep)

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, the musical? The rock and roll musical? The 3,182- line oldest Auld English poem in all of its anonymous and alliterative glory? Lest you fear, here are two words for you: Dave Malloy. The Dave Malloy who created the Libretto and Music for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Three Pianos has written the Music for Beowulf, while Jason Craig has provided the Book and Lyrics . It still consists of the tales of the three pursuits by Beowulf (Charlie Thurston), hero of the Geats, of the Great Mead Hall of Heorot presided over by Danish King Hrothgor (Joe Wilson, Jr.). He first slays the monster Grendel (Stephen Berenson), then the monster's Mother (Anne Scurria), and, about fifty years later, a Dragon (Janice Duclos), though he is then fatally injured. The tale has been the subject of numerous movies, television shows, novels (including graphic ones), music (opera, classical, rock opera), board games, and video games. This incarnation is not your eighth grade assignment, as there are many f-bombs dropped and a lot of the scat is scatological.

But it's all in good fun. We first meet three academics, Berenson, Scurria and Duclos, all discussing the merits of the poem. Soon we find our soldier of fortune taking off on that triple quest, like an ancient Don Quixote, accompanied by five Warriors (Rachel Warren, Rachel Clausen, Rebecca Gibel, Laura Lyman Paine, and Brad Wilson). They provide some great musical backup for such songs as Wilson's “That Was Death”, Thurston's “Passing” and Warren's astonishing showstopper, “Not Only”. The story is often somber and cynical (“better to retaliate than to mourn”, “his dark inevitability”), but mostly intelligently silly. The buff and ready Thurston makes an immediate and lasting impression as he struts and swaggers through each ordeal. The whole cast is in perfect harmony, visually and audibly. If there are standouts, they would have to be Scurria's shocked-little-girl reactions (priceless) and the low-tech overhead projected stick figures (very fang in cheek).

As Directed by Curt Columbus, this one is a winner for the company. The funny, complicated Set Design by Michael McGarty, Costume Design by Olivera Gajic, Lighting Design by Dan Scully, Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, as well as Musical Direction by Michael Rice, Choreography by Jude Sandy and Puppet Design by Shoshanna Utchenik are all tremendous assets to the fast-paced show.
All in all, it's very high octane, high energy and hilarious. Being presented now through October 9th at Trinity Rep's Chase Theater, it's well worth revisiting Ye Auld English world. So broaden thy horizons and get thee to Heorot (sounds like “carrot”) for this raunchy, rousing and riotous romp. 


BLO's "Carmen": Another Torrid Adorer

Michael Mayes as the Toreador Escamillo in "Carmen"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Widely known (even among those who aren’t opera buffs) for its famous Toreador aria, Georges Bizet’s Carmen is a much-beloved favorite of many fans, typically listed among their top ten operas. This is despite the fact that the titular heroine isn’t usually presented as a particularly nice or even sympathetic character. In the current Boston Lyric Opera production (amazingly the first professional opera company to grace the stage of the appropriately named Boston Opera House in almost two decades), a co-production with San Francisco Opera, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano plays the flirtatious Carmen more as a victim than as a predatory seducer. The Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy revolves around her relationships with the staunch soldier Don José (tenor Roger Honeywell) and torrid bullfighting hero Escamillo (baritone Michael Mayes), featuring village girl Micaëla (soprano Chelsea Basler). It's set in “modern day Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city in North Africa”.

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 initially loves Micaëla) 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. Later in the gypsy camp, her ardor diminishes as she now professes love for the toreador Escamillo. Micaëla 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 shouldn’t be surprised that 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 be a powerful score, and indeed there is. The success of a production of Carmen, as with many operatic works, thus often depends on the quality of the singing and conducting, not necessarily on how deeply involved an audience is on an emotional level; but surprisingly this is not the case with this version, which not only boasts superior vocal talent and the depth of a huge orchestra, but also delivers an emotional wallop.
The Cast & Orchestra for BLO's "Carmen"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)
There's more than enough fire and passion (and sex!) in the singing and acting of this version, despite the minimalist sets (except for some classic cars and an imposing bull billboard). Catalonian Calixto Bieito, in his U.S. debut, delivers a stunning production, with Revival Direction by Joan Anton Rechi. Sensitively conducted by BLO's Music Director David Angus (except for the rapid-fire tempo in the overture), Cano and her three co-stars made this more than a mere potboiler, with Basler a standout in her aria Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante. The rest of the cast was extraordinary, including the singers in the roles of Moralès (baritone Vincent Turregano), Zuniga {bass Liam Moran), Frasquita (soprano Kathryn Skemp Moran), Mercédès (mezzo-soprano Heather Gallagher), El Dancairo (baritone Andrew Garland) and El Remendado (tenor Samuel Levine). Visually, the technical work was outstanding, from the Set Design by Alfons Flores, to the Costume Design by Merce Paloma, Lighting Design by (Robert Wierzel), and especially the realistic Fight Direction by Andrew Kenneth Moss. Mention should also be made of the huge orchestra of 63 musicians and a cast of 108 consisting of the BLO Chorus and the youthful Voices Boston, including soldiers, cigarette girls, smugglers, and gypsies, all with well-coordinated movement. Never has so much beefcake and cheesecake been on display, not gratuitously, and the effect was mesmerizing.
As Bieito sees it, his vision is one of a victim in a society wherein people “live and dream their lives very fast, full of violence”. He has made significant cuts in the score, especially the recitatives, to focus on these fast-paced lives. As he has said, his is an interpretation, an attempt at eliciting pity and compassion for both lovers. If you've never been a fan, this could result in a conversion. It's decidely difficult to remain cool about something so hot.