You can count on Timothy Nelson's American Opera Theater to deliver something interesting and, more often than not, provocative. The latest example, Le Cabaret de Carmen, is at the Theatre Project through Sunday. My colleague, Mary McCaulley has already reviewed the production for the paper. I stopped by last night to check it out, curious to see how Bizet's evergreen opera fared after Nelson one-upped Peter Brook's famously condensed 1981 version.
Using the Brook adaptation as a starting point, Nelson, who also directs the show, has created new layers of theatricality, placing the action in a cabaret house where Carmen is a drag performer. Personally, I think the concept would have been helped considerably had Nelson found a countertenor with a big mezzo-ish tone for the title role (I've known a countertenor or two who would have jumped at the chance to sing this score). I also think the concept would work better without so much reliance on a speaking part Nelson himself portrays, that of a smarmy host who owes a little too much to the Joel Gray character in Cabaret. To my ears, Nelson's fake French accent wore out its bienvenue early on last night, and I didn't find his insertions into the drama all that helpful after a while. But he certainly threw himself into the assignment.
Sophie-Louise Roland did some effective throwing as well in the Victor/Victoria-ized version of Carmen. Her dark mezzo, though limited at the top of the range, had an appealing vibrancy. Adam Caughey sang Don Jose's music with considerable passion and some welcome nuance (though not, I regret, enough to produce the soft B-flat in the Flower Song that Bizet asks for). The tenor has work to do solidifying his upper register, but he's a promisng talent. Bonnie McNaughton offered bright, lively vocalism as Micaela; I would have liked to hear more tonal variety.
The standout of the cast was Ryan de Ryke, a baritone who always seems to go the extra mile. He offered an Escamillo of deliciously appaling vanity who alternately crooned and crowed the Toreador Song as you've never heard it before. I confess that I wasn't really sure what to make of the character here. I got that Escamillo was a two-bit singer/comic who frequented the cabaret, but not how (or even if) he came between Carmen and Don Jose. Whatever. The main thing was that de Ryke sang and cavorted so colorfully that he gave the whole performance a substantial spark.
Speaking of sparks, Kel Millionie's lighting design worked minor miracles on the bare-bones stage, creating a great deal of atmosphere and often helping to illuminate things beneath the surface of the characters. JoAnn Kulesza provided the principal accompaniment at the piano neatly enough, with Jill Collier adding some cello lines.
PHOTO (Sophie-Louise Roland, Adam Caughey) COURTESY OF AMERICAN OPERA THEATER