City Lyric Opera 2018-19 Review: La Tragédie de Carmen

A Major Risk Pays Off In Artistic Spades With This Production

By Chris Ruel

Much can and will continue to be said, about the standard repertoire’s misogynistic themes in the era of #MeToo. The male gaze dominates the canon, and City Lyric’s revival of Peter Brook’s 80-minute chamber opera “La Tragédie de Carmen”—an adaptation of Bizet’s grand opera—explores the tragedy surrounding the four principal characters, particularly that of Carmen.

The production was produced, conducted, and directed by a team of female, and female-identifying artists. Whether intended or not, the story that emerges in the City Lyric production is one in which the traditional male-dominated power structure gets flipped on its head. Director Victoria Collado set the stage for a deadly power struggle between a confident, beautiful, and intelligent woman, and an insecure, volatile, and unstable man. 

Less is More

Entering the West End Theater, a small, intimate venue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the audience is met by a sparse, yet beautifully-aged rotunda. City Lyric’s production designer Anna Driftmier chose an ankle-deep, rectangular reflection pool as the centerpiece for the action. That was it in terms of scenery. When Charlotte McPhearson’s lighting design combined with Driftmier’s minimalistic scenography, something unique and captivating happened as the water’s reflection bounced, shimmied and shimmered around the entirety of the theater, amplifying the movements of the characters and their plights. The close collaboration between Driftmier, McPhearson, and Collado was unmistakably apparent in their less-is-more approach to the set. The use of light and water wasn’t a gimmick; it served the story, and never distracted the mind away from the narrative.

The reflection pool created an aquatic opera; there’s no other description for what City Lyric has done. With such little room for the characters to move about, it would’ve been easy for the singers to park and bark, but that didn’t happen. The artists’ actions, though confined, felt free as they explored the space. Within a few minutes, it was easy to forget that the performance was running in an area not much larger than a kiddie pool.

Freedom is Sexy

Tahanee Aluwihare made Carmen’s self-agency the character’s allure and mystique. If she wanted to send a flower Don José’s way, she did. If she asked him to become a gypsy and he refused, she moved on and found herself another lover. If she wanted to sing “tra-la-la” as she went merrily on her way, she had every right to do so. Carmen is a woman who needn’t ask permission, nor apologize for being herself.

Aluwihare’s signing was impeccable. Her voice was colored with the perfect amount of smokiness in the lower register. The role sat beautifully within her tessitura. The mezzo delivered her lyrics with excellent diction, enabling the audience to hear every word whether the score called for subtlety or power.  The reflection pool was in every way her playground as she splashed about with her feet, and sometimes hands, dancing her gypsy dances and chasing after Escamillo like a bull in a ring.

The mezzo’s “Habanera” got off to an interesting start. Since the West End is such an intimate performance space, you can read everything written on the artists’ faces. As Aluwihare began to sing, she looked a bit confused, pensive, and unsure. It didn’t fit with the way one typically encounters singers performing this iconic piece. Perhaps, Aluwihare was unsure of herself during the opening bars, but there’s a stronger possibility that the expression demonstrated a few moments of introspection on the part of her character. 

The mezzo soon vamped it up, but never to the point of some of the more iconic singers who have taken on the role. Aluwihare saved her fire for the “Seguidilla.” Here, she set the reflection pool aflame with her seductive phrasing, striking delivery, and sheer sexiness. If by chance, the mezzo’s “Habanera” wasn’t intentionally subdued, Aluwihare made up for it with a killer interpretation of her second big number.

Young Artists on the Rise

Soprano Lara-Secord Haid’s delivered a Micaëla that was sympathetic and relatable. Don José’s love for her is as fickle as it gets and she gets tossed to the curb in a heartbeat. Haid brought out a quality in the character that was both haunting and haunted as she begins to lurk about at the edge of the pool, wondering if she can save Don José. The effect casts Micaëla in a way that draws the audience into her heartbreak. 

Haid’s singing was light and feathery during “Parle-moi de ma mére.” When it came time to fight Carmen, her voice was able to carry sufficient weight expressive of her inner turmoil while later in the opera, Haid delivered touching sentiment toward her rival as the two knelt together in the water. In all, the soprano presented a convincing performance of a woman thrown for a loop by her love’s desire for something new. 

Tenor Matthew Pearce demonstrated that he could take on powerful roles such as Don José even early on in his career. He floated notes like the gentle ripples on the water during his “Flower Song.” When called upon to express his darker intentions and inner anguish, he could turn on a weightier timbre. Pearce hit dramatic high notes with confidence, brightness, and seemingly with ease, demonstrating a high level of control. Nothing in his voice sounded forced even as he approached the top of his range. 

Pearce’s acting on Tuesday night during the first half of the opera wasn’t everything it could have been. He began the night portraying Don José as an awkward schoolboy with underlying anger issues. When first smitten by Carmen, there’s no real hint of the monster coiling within. When Aluwihare’s Carmen sends a flower drifting Pearce’s way across the reflection pool, the tenor played Don José like a kid who, when smiled upon by the prettiest girl at school says: “Aw, shucks, she likes me.” That wasn’t a poor acting choice for a first encounter.

However, whether it’s Bizet or Brook, there should always be some hint of the beast within Don José inching closer to the surface. In an 80-minute chamber opera, the creep factor needed to be spun up faster. This was especially clear as Tahanee Aluwihare sang the famous “Habanera.” Instead of ignoring her, as Don José does in the Bizet version, and instead of pawing at her in response to her seductive melody, or prowling around as she explained her take on love, Pearce’s Don José remained stupified by the attention Carmen lavished upon him. There was a missed opportunity here for the tenor to reveal a touch of the volatility behind the awkwardness. If he showed just a few slight cracks in facade earlier on, he would have given those in the seats reason to fear for Carmen’s safety much sooner because something shocking sat on the horizon.

A Violent Power Play

City Lyric’s decision to include a graphic rape scene needs talking about; it’s disturbing, it’s up close, and it has nothing to do with Don José’s lust. In other words, it’s potency cannot be ignored. Pearce’s acting during the scene was extraordinary in its frightfulness. A ding for not spinning up Don José’s character quickly enough in an opera as fast moving as “La Tragédie de Carmen” should in no way diminish the ability Pearce demonstrated in portraying a character who wants absolute control over Carmen’s body to the point of raping and killing her. Everywhere Don José turns in Brook’s adaptation he is mocked, scorned, challenged, and humiliated. Pearce got the character motivation right, and that was crucial–Don José wasn’t after sex–he was after domination, and that was unmistakable in Pearce’s performance.  Any company, director, and actor/singer willing to take on such a scene and not tuck it away offstage, deserves high praise for their bravery and their willingness to confront something far too familiar in opera stories.

The notion that rape is related to lust and the punishment a woman deserves for daring to express her sexuality needs to be shattered now more than ever.

Likewise, enough cannot be said about Aluwihare’s courage in taking on such chilling aspects of City Lyric’s production. When all the violence to Carmen’s body is done, she is left face up in the water, strangled, and dead with her hair floating in a grotesque fantail beneath her head. Beside her corpse, her red scarf rests at the bottom of the pool like a big splotch of blood. 

A Toreador to Remember

The stand-out performance of the evening came from baritone Young-Kwang Yoo. His Escamillo was the male counterpart to Aluwihare’s Carmen. Yoo played Escamillo’s brazen machismo to the hilt, strutting about the pool with his head held high and using Carmen’s red scarf as a bullfighter’s cape, pulling off flawless veronicas as Carmen made close passes at his body and lips.

Yoo’s voice was rich and smooth as he launched into the “Toreador Song.” Of note was the baritone’s use of silence. At one point, Yoo paused for what may have been ten or more seconds to let the utter pompousness of his character come wordlessly to life. His was a vocal and acting performance that slew, not just the audience, but Carmen heart’s, as well.

Just as Aluwihare’s Carmen exercised her right to do as she pleased with whomever she pleased, Yoo’s Escamillo gave her a run for her money. When Carmen thought she had him romantically pinned, Yoo twirled his Escamillo away with a precious wave goodbye, flummoxing the free-spirited gypsie with a taste of her own medicine. 

In a tale involving rape and murder, Yoo’s comic relief was necessary. There were other moments of levity such as a squirt gun fight between Escamillo and Don José, but Yoo’s bombastic portrayal of the bullfighter deserves the credit for lightening the mood before things nosedived into darkness.

All told, the cast worked together to deliver a challenging evening of opera that went by fast. The small orchestra led by Maestro Rebecca Tong delivered a tight, well-paced performance of Marius Constant’s arrangement of Bizet’s score. The orchestra never overpowered the voices even in such a small theater. Watching Tong interact with the musicians demonstrated a high level of mutual respect and a truly collaborative approach to making music.

City Lyric Opera pulled off a bold interpretation of an adaptation of an opera classic, one that the burgeoning opera company should be proud to call their own.

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