Petrillo Music Shell

August 9

Like all great works of art, Georges Bizet’s Carmen invites unconventional interpretations. Over the years there have been socialist Carmens, modern-dress Carmens, and, I’m told, at least one cross-dressed Carmen. Yet for all the liberties taken with the staging, Bizet’s score remained sacrosanct for more than a century. Indeed, why would anyone want to tamper with an opera that, in the opinion of musicologist Winton Dean, combines “the sharp outline and virility of Berlioz and the grace and economy of Mozart”?

Yet in 1981 theater director Peter Brook—working with conductor Marius Constant and Jean-Claude Carrière, a playwright noted for his collaborations with film director Luis Buñuel—shortened the opera “to focus on the intense interactions, the tragedy of four people.” Presumably the abridgment was allowed because the rights to the opera had expired and permission from the Bizet estate was not needed. In any case, fidelity to the composer’s musical design was never an issue for Brook, who declared he wanted to convey the dramatic core of Prosper Mérimée’s book, on which the libretto is based.

Brook’s version, La Tragedie de Carmen, was given its local premiere earlier this year by Lyric Opera’s Center for American Artists. The same production, a pet project of the center’s new director, Andrew Foldi, was presented at Grant Park two weekends ago and at the University of Chicago last weekend.

The Brook adaptation runs 90 minutes, half the length of the original. It dispenses with the chorus, five of the secondary characters, and all the supernumeraries. Several psychologically telling scenes are deleted, and the orchestra is scaled down to 15 pieces. What’s left can be regarded as a hit parade, from the famous “Habanera” to the “Toreador’s Song.” So why bother?

Brook, I suspect, wanted to get to the elemental drama of obsessive love and depravity in Mérimée’s cautionary tale. According to reviews at the time, his Paris production, with its provocative staging and intense acting and singing, was a success, as was the Tony-winning Lincoln Center revival several years later. But when the staging falls short of compelling, the flaws in Brook’s conceit become obvious.

In Mérimée’s story Carmen is a whore, not the cigarette-factory hussy of Bizet’s opera. She lies, steals, and incites men to murder. Though she’s irresistible, her sexual appetite and independence grate on her suitors. A modern, liberated woman—a product of the changing morals that followed the Industrial Revolution—Carmen served as a prototype for a long line of femme fatales, from Wedekind’s and Berg’s Lulu to Heinrich Mann’s Lola (memorably portrayed by Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel). Don José—a handsome, weak-willed young man cowed by strong women, including, it’s hinted, his own mother—succumbs rather quickly.

When Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy wrote the opera’s libretto some 30 years after the novella’s publication in 1845, they had to tone down the licentiousness for the bourgeois audience of the Opera-Comique. They also added several characters and scenes for dramatic reasons. The prim and proper Micaela, for example, was created as a contrast to the sultry Carmen. Carmen’s shadowy lover was turned into Escamillo, a bragging bullfighter. A fortune-telling scene heightened the sense of doom and made Carmen more vulnerable.

Curiously, Brook chose to keep Micaela, the weakest and most conventional link. Yet he omitted the fortune-telling and crowd scenes as well as other effective dramatic bits, casting away the socioeconomic milieu so crucial to understanding the sexual humiliation and tragic downfall of Don José. Bizet’s delicate balance between the expression of ferocious passions and subtle characterizations is tipped. Any emotional wallop Brook’s approach delivers clearly depends almost entirely on the acting skills of the singers.

In the Sunday performance at Grant Park—given by the second half of a double cast—the singing was for the most part solid. Eleni Matos’s ripe, honeyed mezzo conveyed Carmen’s voluptuousness, though her technique could have been smoother. Roy Cornelius Smith’s tenor was generally pinched at the top, though it was ravishing in José’s big aria. Baritone Victor Benedetti as Escamillo demonstrated plenty of raw power but little finesse, and Elizabeth Koch’s Micaela was alternately radiant and bland.

As actors, the principals either overreached or looked stiff. The Rubenesque Matos played the vamp unconvincingly; her movements and facial expressions were straight out of high school. Smith’s José behaved like a puppy in love, not a man capable of murder. The burly Benedetti was excessively haughty, and Koch looked distraught most of the time. All four could benefit from more acting lessons. About the only believable performance was given by Rodrick Dixon in the nonsinging parts of Zuniga and Old Gypsy; he alone spoke French like a native.

Foldi’s stage direction bordered on pretentious. The knife fights were choreographed with skill (by Michael Sokoloff), and a comic bit involving a corpse elicited genuine laughter. But must Carmen blow smoke into Jose’s face as a show of her wickedness? Must she lie supine through much of the “Habanera,” her siren song? And must she dally with Escamillo while a piano (not in Bizet’s score) tinkles in the background, giving the scene the campiness of a Valentino desert epic? Unaccountably, the pace of the final tableau was lugubrious, like a Martha Graham enactment of a Greek tragedy. And José stabbed Carmen in the back, which makes no sense whatsoever.

The single wood-frame set by Scott Marr was simple and functional, as were the costumes collected by Marta Justus. The 15 members of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Randall Behr, conductor of the original Lincoln Center production, played rather well and enthusiastically. Their sound was particularly convincing when it suggested the tawdriness of a cabaret band. But even the good points of this production weren’t enough. Carmen condensed is Carmen diluted.