When Carmen takes the Rialto stage tonight, she won’t have an adoring chorus of gypsies to back her up. Nor will she have grandiose bullfight scenery or a triumphant overture to glorify her tale of seduction and death. No, all she’ll have is her jealous husband, her rival, her lover, a couple of side characters — and her knife.
Tonight’s production of the tale made famous by Bizet’s music is the 1981 adaptation by Sir Peter Brook, “La Tragédie de Carmen,” the Spanish love story is condensed into 85 terse minutes of arias, fights and shocking drama.
“I quickly realized I had to approach this like a brand new opera, because in a lot of ways it is,” said director Barry Johnson, who like most of the singers, is doing this Brook version for the first time. “Things are sliced and diced, things come out of order. The audience really focuses on the characters, you get to know them a lot deeper. And the plot is on hyperdrive.”
The production was chosen to replace Tacoma Opera’s usual Young Artists winter showcase by new company director Noel Koran, who’d attended Brook’s new take on the “Carmen” classic when it was first performed in a grungy Paris theater. Captivated by the same aspects that Johnson mentions — the intensity, the characterization — Koran has directed the opera himself several times since. And it makes a good fit for Tacoma Opera, Johnson said: It has a small cast, minimal scenery, a small orchestra, and tunes that everyone’s familiar with.
So what makes this “Carmen” different?
For starters, there’s no chorus, overture or distracting happy crowd scenes. Bizet based his opera on the novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée, but operatic conventions of the time meant that the tense action became diluted with choruses and dancing. Brook takes all these out and reduces the cast to the gypsy siren Carmen, her lover Don José, his sweetheart Micaela and the matador Escamillo. He brings in some new speaking parts — Carmen’s husband Garcia, José’s army boss Zuniga, the bar owner Lilas Pastia — and distills the whole thing down to one act. It still contains all the favorite arias and duets, but the rest of the music is moved around or cut.
The result, as Johnson said, is incredibly fast-paced. Within the first 15 minutes, there’s already been a kiss, a seduction, a knife fight and an arrest.
“The audience doesn’t get off the hook,” Johnson said. “It’s like an Indiana Jones movie: all action, all the time. It’s riveting.”
Johnson’s cast certainly promises plenty of riveting. As Carmen, mezzo Hannah Penn (recently seen at TO as Cherubino in “The Marriage of Figaro” and Dinah in “Trouble in Tahiti”) brings a swiftly vicious passion to the heroine who, in this version, is wholly complicit in the violence that overtakes every character. Tenor Jon Farmer (Rodolpho in last year’s “La Bohme”) gives Don José a quiet sultriness that soon moves into desperation, and newcomer Jennifer Valle sings Micaela with a rich confidence. Daniel Oakden (the “La Bohme” Marcello) sings Escamillo.
And there’s a lot more violence. More characters get killed with far more deliberation, Don José turns into a sociopath, and even Carmen and Micaela have it out with a knife. As aria follows aria without a break, this means breathtaking watching for the audience — and challenging work for the singers.
“I’m on stage for almost the whole time,” said Penn, who has to sing her three big arias one right after the other with no time to rest. “It’s a little scary. And Don José’s big solo is right after his knife fight. Luckily we have a very fit tenor. This version is much more intense.”
And the overture? That comes in halfway through, played as a recording in the distance, as Escamillo is warming up for his bullfight.
“It’ll freak out the audience for a moment,” said Johnson, smiling.
But the other big change is the setting. No more rocky hills, cigarette shops and colorful Spanish crowds, as the company produced for its 2007 “Carmen.” Brook’s drama will take place in the stark center of a low stone ring with blood-red walls behind — an allusion to the violence and death of the bullring. And while Johnson is making things more familiar for the audience with 19th-century Spanish costumes, the way the characters behave is far more 21st-century theater, with the orchestra tucked out of sight at the back and the action highly focused.
The opera will be sung in French with subtitles, and the Young Artists part is not entirely eliminated: Three singers from the program will perform nine Spanish love-songs by Joaquin Rodrigo in the short act before intermission.
For many South Sound opera-goers, however, the question will be: Is “La Tragédie de Carmen” better than the beloved original?
“In certain ways, yes,” said Johnson, “though I would never speak badly about the original. I love ‘Carmen’ — it’s in my top 10 operas and many other people’s, for good reason. But it has flaws — it lags dramatically in the third act.”
Not this version.
“It’s like a roller-coaster ride,” Penn said. “If it were written today, it would be an action film.” ‘La Tragédie de Carmen’
Who: Tacoma Opera, directed by Barry Johnson, performs the Bizet opera
When: 8 tonight, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma
Information: 253-627-7789, tacomaopera.comRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/arts