No one summed up the night better than the baritone:
“Try not to be distracted by the crowd,” John Allen Nelson sang as the gallant bullfighter Escamillo. “Dark eyes are watching you.”
Sung in different versions and languages around the world, these words seemed perfect for newly-rebooted Skylark Opera Theatre’s production in an event hall in St. Paul’s midway. Its six actors were perhaps closer to us than the majority of Carmen performers dare go. We could feel the heat coming off them, trace the spit arcs to near our toes and drink in details that traditional productions hide behind spectacular effects.
He sang to the challenges of tackling the intimacy of The Tragedy of Carmen, Peter Brook’s condensed take on Georges Bizet’s famous opera. The company grappled with them for the entirety of the fast show, mostly to great success. The excellently acted and sung piece was hindered mostly by Brook’s reimagining (which the opera world has mulled over since it premiered in the 1980s). With some equally confusing choices, the production weakened those parts.
Despite any road bumps, the up-close production reclaimed Skylark’s place as a company to be watched — lest one of its artists crawl into your lap belting an aria.
Homing in on the tragic love story at the heart of Carmen, the show is a collage of amorous confrontations. They start when Micaela (a moving Jennifer Baldwin Peden) brings soldier Don José (Laurent Kuehnl) a letter from his mother and watches her would-be boyfriend get distracted by Carmen. Magnetically played by Tess Altiveros, this Carmen is a party girl who seems into Don José from the start. After the two of them battle out their feelings and get together, she spurns him because he seems more loyal to his job than to her. Turning to the showy Escamillo, Carmen gets tangled in a fight for love and freedom, and Don José jumps for revenge.
New Skylark artistic director Robert Neu’s production placed the action in a lane-shaped stage between two groupings of chairs. The closeness made it real and got us as close to the characters’ emotions as possible. Whipping through Bizet’s arias, the production felt like a sleepless weekend in which love can be kindled and stomped out and renewed with someone else. Under music director Barbara Brooks, the three-piece orchestra stripped the music down enough to reach our cores in an honest and haunting way. Matt Williams’s repeating viola solos added a melancholy human touch. Throughout, there was a vital energy that propelled the old opera to new places. The open-plan Midpointe Event Center served that element excellently.
Not to mention the performers. Altiveros was a perfect fit for Carmen, bringing new energy to the character while evoking the classic seduction we associate with her. Baldwin Peden, though only in a few scenes, strengthened the soundscape with her soprano. Allen Nelson brought a grandness to the show without straying from its intimate world. Most impressively, these three actors succeeded at toning down the theatrics they might use for bigger operas, turning into film actors who happened to be singing. This was what made the show powerful on such a small scale.
The opera’s weaknesses would not have bothered me had I not been familiar with the original one, which brought on the question: is it fair to compare it to the original? Yes, I think, because had it not been around, neither would this.
Brook’s shortened beginning and end suffer from lack of detail. With Carmen waltzing in at the beginning and summoning Don José away from Micaela, the emotional dynamic was clear, but not who or where these people were. Though Brook might argue time and place don’t matter, Samantha Fromm’s costumes begged us to ask — and I’m still not sure what the answer would be. The libretto talks of Seville, war and toreadors. The soldiers wore U.S. Army uniforms and Escamillo a Spanish toreador kit, while Carmen rocked some present-day clubbing attire. The show seemed to exist in a world somewhere between now and then; between Spain and a war-torn place our country is involved with. That caused confusion at times.
All in all — this Carmen was beautiful, raw and powerful. It was a unique rendition of a classic made into something way more than that. Skylark has proven itself capable of delivering bare-bones, intimate opera, despite faults in the material. I am excited to see what it does next.