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Le Cabaret de Carmen at Theatre Project

January 25, 2010

Carmen is a bitch—but, oh, what a voice. The opera named for the dancing, flirtatious gypsy songstress who seduces a soldier until he loves her back, leaves, and returns, moves from the streets of 1830s Spain in Georges Bizet’s tragedy Carmen to a 1920s Parisian nightclub in American Opera Theater’s version, Le Cabaret de Carmen. The Theatre Project’s little black box is the perfect space for a stripped-down opera set in smokey Cafe Pastia: small enough to feel intimate, large enough to hold music and lyrics (at times more so than dialogue), and the lobby sells wine.

There are five dress changes for the dark haired beauty Carmen (played by AOC’s general director Sophie Louise-Roland), who is stuck in a dead-end job singing for and doing customers, while Madame Pastia (the wonderful Lydia Gladstone in fringe and miles of beads) pockets the cash. Soldier Don Jose (Brian Arreola) gets sucked into the cafe’s nightlife even though Micaela (the strong-lunged Bonnie McNaughton), an innocent lovely in a white cotton dress, delivers him a message from his momma begging him to return to the village and a simpler life. Momma is right, the Cafe Pastia is a sinful place, where drink and blood gets spilled and sex isn’t about love.

The show is narrated by the “fey host” (Timothy Nelson, AOT’s artistic director), looking all Clockwork Orange-y in pale hair, make-up, and suspenders. He smokes cigarettes and offers up randy and comedic asides to the tragic story, though Madame has a few zingers of her own. Nelson also plays a soldier with a heart of stone who abuses Carmen in an operatic rape scene as disturbing as it gets. Escamillo (played by the talented Adonis Abuyen)—a matador with a passion for stand-up comedy, talking with the audience, and pronouncing “l”s as “r”s in an exaggerated Asian accent during an off-color bit that felt as uncomfortably dated as a 1950s routine—steals Carmen’s heart and, thus, destroys Don Jose’s.

But it’s hard to say exactly because the freaking surtitles were all over the place: at times they seemed stuck and often lagged behind or jumped ahead of the action. Yes, the music (Jill Collier on cello and Simone Luti on piano) tells the story but, for a novice to the multi-layered world of opera, reading the lyrics helps place you firmly in the plot. The show produced Thursday, Jan. 21, was the first of four, and you hope AOT got the surtitles synced up to the onstage drama before the weekend was up. Still, the vitality and humanity of AOT’s version of Carmen makes us excited for its spring show Jephtha, a version of Handel’s oratorio, scheduled for late April.

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