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Subject: Carmen in Boston
From: Jon Goldberg <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Jon Goldberg <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Mon, 26 Sep 2016 00:52:18 -0400

text/plain (102 lines)

Any other listers go this weekend? I went to the prima on Friday. I'd love to hear some 
other opinions. 

The most special thing about the night was that there was, after 25 years, a bona fide 
opera in the Boston Opera House (formerly the BF Keith Memorial Theatre, but renamed 
the Boston Opera House in 1980, for Sarah Caldwell to abuse for a decade or so - in more 
recent years it was restored but is now used basically as a touring house for Broadway 
shows). I saw the touring "Lion King" there - the first show in the renovated theatre - back 
in 2004, and have seen a number of shows there since, but it's always been an irony that 
there has been absolutely no opera there. Now we can say there was. And the 
(unamplified) acoustics were marvellous, by the way. Impressive. 

The 2nd most important thing about the evening, I suppose, was Boston's first exposure to 
a Calixto Bieto production. I'm still trying to sort out how I felt about the production. Parts 
of it I liked a lot, parts of it seemed dramatically out of kilter or just plain weak. Personally, 
I'm getting way tired of "bare stage" concept productions, so I wasn't impressed by Bieto's 
overuse of negative space as an excuse for a set. The "XXX" nature of the staging was 
nowhere near as provocative as I expected, and on the whole, I equated his take on the 
story with that of a show I found much more exciting in this same venue - the tour of 
"American Idiot" that played here a few years ago. What both productions shared was an 
extreme, extreme sense of nihilism - the gypsies and soldiers in this Carmen seeming as 
aimless and uncaring as the youngsters in search of some sort of existence in the Green 
Day inspired musical. (And the irony of comparing the 2 productions was especially evident 
in one of the touted "coups de theatre" in the Bieto - a huge billboard of a bull being 
thrown, with a huge crash, to the ground, to be very very noisily dismantled during the 
Entr'acte before Act IV -- compared to the cast of "American Idiot" ingeniously turning a 
huge towering piece of scaffolding on its side to transform into a mock bus. The effect in 
"Idiot" was by far much more impressive, and much more thrillingly dangerous-looking to 
watch.) But Bieto did give us not one, but 5 Mercedes being rolled or driven onstage, which 
was kinda cool, and some inspired silliness, like having the entire company jumping up and 
down in joy as they sang the "Toreador theme" section of the Act IV chorus. 

Sometimes the effects seemed either out of place or simply misdirected. The opening 
scene was dominated by an almost naked soldier being forced to run laps around the stage,  
even during Micaela's first scene with them. (The astonished look she gave to that soldier, 
however, was priceless and perfect.) At one point the group of soldiers surround her 
menacingly - as if to molest her - and after that moment all of a sudden that running 
soldier had collapsed on the ground. Not quite dead, it turns out - but even so, I felt like our 
attention was drawn to the wrong thing - the group of soldiers - when the story of the 
runner was coming to an important moment that probably most of us missed. That's what 
they call inept direction. Why would Bieto NOT want us to see the soldier finally succumb 
and fall, after watching him all this time?

Similarly, the staging was littered with attempts at comic "bits" - two of them that got 
cheap laughs and really were beyond stupid - Micaela and Jose taking selfies during their 
duet, and Micaela making an obscene arm gesture at Carmen in her Act III scene. These 
moments were doubly unfortunate because they took away just a little from one of the 
strongest all-around performances of the evening - Chelsea Basler's gorgeously sung and 
intensely acted Micaela. 

I could go on about the staging, but maybe in another post later. 

I'd say the other truly wonderful thing about the evening was the ample local Boston talent 
- the orchestra, and the choral forces - outstanding, and consistently so. (And special kudos 
to the chorus for the aforementioned "jump fest" during "C'est l'Espada, la fine lame.")

As for the solo singers - Jennifer Johnson Cano's Carmen was certainly nice to hear, but this 
feels like, perhaps, her maiden voyage in the role - a bit generic, perhaps, both musically 
and dramatically. I'd love to hear her in a role she was more grounded in. I also feel she 
was rather outshadowed by her "rival," the aforementioned Chelsea Basler, who really 
made the case for Micaela as an incredibly important presence in the story. The other 
women were fun and sang well (it was perhaps a bit odd to to see Frasquita and Mercedes 
get into a cat fight during the Card trio, but hey, they sang it expertly during all of that 
fighting...). Likewise the male gypsies and the soldiers - all had great presence vocally and 
dramatically (the Quintet, one of my favorite numbers in the opera, definitely did not 
disappoint). Escamillo was ok but had negative low notes, and seemed more stiff than 
swaggering. (His little gem of a duet with Carmen in Act IV was very nicely sung, though.) 
Roger Honeywell was a "can belto" Jose who also seemed very uncomfortable with the 
staging. Though I thought he sounded nuanced in the Micaela duet, the Flower Song 
sounded phoned in, and most of the rest of the time, to me, he seemed more concerned 
with hitting the notes than making music. (Bieto also has him swat Micaela around in Act I 
- the two of them maybe being more Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan than Jose and Micaela - 
which only made it hard to want to feel anything for Jose as the opera went on - and to 
wonder what the hell she saw in him.)

One other note about the staging - I wonder if it was Bieto's intention to not only get rid of 
anything iconically Spanish in the setting (he has talked about that) but to also screw with 
landing some of the iconic dramatic moments. I feel the latter is a miscalculation. Carmen 
never danced for Jose in Act II (if I were him, I would have *welcomed* the sound of the 
Retreat so he'd have an excuse to get out of there, lol), the Escamillo/Jose knife fight was 
the wimpiest I think I've ever seen, and Carmen's death was staged in such a way that it 
was one of the most anticlimactic moments in the entire piece. It was all a bit like like 
"Carmen Neutered" - and at times, really more like "Le Tragedie de Carmen" to boot, given 
the extreme cuts made to the score (and almost no spoken dialogue either). 

So, I'm still sorting this out. I'm grateful I was there, and I did enjoy a lot of it. But all the 
hype for Bieto's shocking production was unfounded - save for those moments that were 
simply badly conceived. The occasion was unforgettable, the musical performance was 
mostly joyous - but the production should have been much much better. 

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