Saturday, January 23, 2010

Carmen au cabaret

American Opera Theater's production of Carmen will not please purists. Now titled Le Cabaret de Carmen, Bizet's opera has been turned into a series of acts in a rough, smoky 1920s Parisian nightclub. But this sizzling production will intrigue just about everyone else. Glorious singing is provided by Adonis Abuyen (Escamillo), Bonnie Mc Naughton (Micaela), and especially Brian Arreola (Don Jose), whose brilliant tenor rendition of a desperate Don Jose provides the evening's most thrilling vocal moments. Playing Carmen as an overbearing yet vulnerable chanteuse, Sophie-Louise Roland looks and plays the seductress with energy and conviction, but her singing remained the most frayed of the performance. Under Timothy Nelson's direction, the story is completely revamped. The toreador becomes a stand-up comic, Carmen's husband suddenly appears, a cynical madam (Lydia Gladstone) bossily moves the stage business along the cabaret stage and the patrons sitting in a apron downstage. The simple orchestra of piano (Simone Lutti) and cello (Jill Collier) provides an intimate and often intense accompaniment to the singing. The direction effectively recreates the underworld of Paris 1920: smoke-filled cabaret, violent floor shows, stand-up comedians, silky soloists overemphasizing emotion, the overwrought gestures of silent cinema. But some of the gimmicks don't work. The host (Timothy Nelson) is a simple knock-off of the Joel Grey Emcee from Cabaret; a gay subplot comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere; the stage business of the madam becomes tiresome. The energetic production works best in the simpler moments toward the end, when Arreola and McNaugton treat us to some moving arias where the purity of musical tone matches the purity of the emotion expressed.

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