MasterVoices presents a Fresh Carmen
Musical theater legend Sheldon Harnick’s translation of Georges Bizet’s opera, Carmen, was commissioned and premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1981 and served as the English text for Peter Brook’s 90 minute La tragedie de Carmen presented at the Vivian Beaumont in 1987. This performance showcases the work as it was presented at Paris’ Opera Comique in 1875, with spoken dialogue rather than sung recitative.
Terrence Chin-Loy as Don Jose and Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen
“The production aims to explore Carmen’s relationship to freedom, manipulation…probing what power meant for women in 19th century Europe and, more importantly, how we view that power now.” (Director Sammi Cannold) In fact, women have been depicted and/or treated as chattel and sex objects since the beginning of time. Carmen uses lightening rod allure to satisfy her boredom, mercenary wants, and sexual desire. She’s a femme fatale/liberated woman of the first order.
As played by the extremely attractive, mezzo soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson, Carmen’s quicksilver, fickle emotions and seductive prowess are entirely believable. Though the artist’s voice seems to emerge roughly and takes getting used to, its unique character and skill blend to make vocals distinctively her own. The performer moves like a sensuous dancer exuding entitlement and challenge. “What is love but a willful bird/Whose heart you will never tame…If I love you my friend, beware,” Carmen aptly warns.
Mikaela Bennett as Micaela
Every soldier in the Seville garrison desires the gypsy who toys with them. They settle for cigarette girls who (literally) parade before them providing “a first rate show.” Hometown girl, Micaela (Mikaela Bennett) comes looking for Corporal Don Jose (Terrence Chin-Loy) to deliver a note from his mother and once again glimpse the man who has her heart. Bennett has a silky, mature soprano belying her age and deftly manifests innocence. Chin-Loy’s tenor is rich and expansive. A better vocalist than actor, his lyrics carry feeling missing in dialogue and manner.
One minute Don Jose is resolved to marry Micaela, the next he’s head over heels in love with Carmen, who’s suddenly taken a fancy to him. When the gypsy has a cat fight scarring another woman, she’s arrested and imprisoned under his guard. Seduction is a given. Carmen talks of their running away together. Upright Don Jose is torn. The two stage an escape but Lieutenant Zuniga (Leo Radosavljevic- fine, resonant bass) is not deceived. The corporal’s rank is stripped and he’s jailed. Time passes.
Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen, John Brancy as Escamillo
Two flamenco artists entertain at the tavern where Carmen spends her time (as if never having been incarcerated). Dancers Laura Peralta and Isaac Tovar add an evocative element of authenticity and arousal. A dancing bull (Camila Cardona) is less appealing. Were movement kept to interaction with the toreador, this imaginative character might be appropriate. Otherwise it distracts, making neither dramatic nor visual sense. Toreador Escamillo (John Brancy) is a striking figure of a man attracting Carmen while Don Jose is absent. The baritone has a sumptuous voice and carries himself with cocky pride. “Dark eyes are watching you, toreador/Love will be yours tonight,” the company sings.
Out of jail, Don Jose gets wind of the burgeoning romance and is rabidly jealous. Once again, Carmen demands he prove his love by deserting and joining the gypsies. She dances for her lover, a disappointment as the otherwise graceful, demonstrative actress barely moves. Once again, the young man is drawn by the call of the bugle. His inamorata mocks him, “Run little man!” When the lieutenant calls on Carmen, Don Jose is poised to attack.
Dancers Laura Peralta and Isaac Tovar
With friends Frasquita (soprano Nicole Fernandez-Coffaro) and Mercedes (mezzo soprano Kimberly Sogioka), both able vocalists and enthusiastic actors, Carmen is to distract sentries so the gypsies can conduct a robbery. Meanwhile the ladies consult Tarot Cards. Frasquita and Mercedes see “glorious romantic futures” for themselves. That of the heroine is not auspicious. “To change your bitter fate/ You mix the deck in vain/There’s no reshaping them…you will turn up death again.”
We know where this is heading. Glamorous Escamillo becomes Carmen’s new flame. Manuelita is unsuccessful in restoring Don Jose to sense or duty. Carmen is resigned to her fate, determined not to lose freedom of choice. (At one point, grasping her wrist, Don Jose wrestles her to the floor in tautly realistic fashion.) Here the bull picturesquely dies in Escamillo’s arms as Carmen dies in those of her murderer.
Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen and Terrence Chin-Loy as Don Jose, foreground, dancer Camila Cardona and John Brancy as Escamillo on platform
Also featuring an impressive William Ferguson as Remendado and Michael Kelly as Dancario and Morales.
Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics contain deft internal rhymes and slight stretches such as blaspheming/constant dream/goal supreme. Operatic repetition fits as does his overall sense of the peasant population eliciting direct expression rather than vivid adjectives.
This splendid production showcases how Rose Hall can effectively host a pared down version of opera. Staging was superb. Supertitles by 4Wall offer clarity. Director Sammi Cannold seamlessly transitions scenes including splendid dance parentheses choreographed by Gustavo Zajac. Painterly visual composition and use of the small proscenium are first rate. In Act II, the surprise of a large (volunteer) chorus filling tiers behind the staging area works wonderfully.
Nicole Slaven’s costumes have one foot in period/geography and one foot in attic trunks, but they work. Lighting by Brian Tovar is symbiotic. Under maestro Ted Sperling, the orchestra does twice its work sounding twice its size.
Photos by Erin Baiano
MasterVoices presents Carmen
Music by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy
English Translation by Sheldon Harnick
Master Voices Orchestra of St. Luke’s – Ted Sperling Conductor
Sammi Cannold – Director
Gustavo Zajac – Choreographer
Rose Theater – Frederick P. Rose Hall
October 25, 2022
NEXT: Oh How Good
Thursday, March 23, 2023, 7:30 pm
Central Synagogue, 652 Lexington Avenue
MasterVoices – Ted Sperling, conductor
Justin Austin, baritone, Daniel Mutlu, tenor, David Strickland, organ
And look for Iolanthe in the Spring