Not Bizet, but this 'Carmen' could be called smashing

The Baltimore Sun

Beware of flying crockery.

I'm pleased to report that no members of the audience were accidentally beheaded during a recent performance of Le Cabaret de Carmen. That would be carrying the quest for authenticity a bit too far.

But at times, it was a close call. Most singers portraying the Gypsy siren Carmen use castanets when they dance. Sophie-Louise Roland uses shards of a plate that she obligingly shatters on stage.

At one point, Roland flung her arm so vehemently over her head that a heavy metal bracelet flew off her arm and ricocheted against the wall.

In another instance, Timothy Nelson, playing the cabaret's fey emcee, amusingly rotates an old LP on his finger, while the sound system blares an intentionally scratchy recording of the big bullfight sequence.

The number finished, Nelson - you guessed it - smashes the vinyl disc on the floor. The 20-something wunderkind and founder of American Opera Theatre couldn't be saying more clearly, if he'd put it into words, "Take that, Georges Bizet."

If Bizet had been at Theatre Project, the grand old composer himself (or his ghost) probably would have led the applause. This might not be the Carmen that Bizet wrote, but it is fresh, inventive and invigorating.

Le Cabaret de Carmen is described as being more avant-garde theater than opera, doubtless to appease musical purists. Instead of four acts, this production has just one, and it clocks in at less than 90 minutes, or roughly half the original.

Instead of dozens of performers, this production has been pared down to four singers and two actors. And, instead of a full orchestra, musical accompaniment consists of a cello and a piano.

Nor do the innovations stop there: To enhance the cabaret feel, roughly two dozen audience members are seated at tables on the stage, and are served tapas and wine by members of the cast.

Even the glitches add to the ticky-tacky cabaret atmosphere and low-rent charm. For instance, the supertitles didn't work for most of the evening. At times, the computer document folder itself was visible on the screen, resulting in audience giggles. But, it was no great loss; we know the plot.

Le Cabaret de Carmen is based on the Tragedie du Carmen, a controversial 1981 revision by Peter Brook, who went back to Prosper Merimee's original novella and restored such characters as Carmen's husband, Garcia.

But Nelson out-Brooks Brook by turning Carmen into a drag queen. Thus, the crime for which Don Jose initially is driven out of town isn't murder, but homosexuality.

This is the second time in recent memory that Nelson has mined a heretofore unsuspected homoerotic element in classic stories; he recently did the same for David et Jonathas, a 1688 opera about two biblical characters by the French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. In Carmen, the lead character is portrayed by a woman playing a man playing a woman; in David, a lead character (Jonathan) is portrayed by a woman playing a man.

This all seems a bit confusing and over-complicated, but it kind of works. If Don Jose is gay, that adds a new tension to the romantic triangle between the soldier, his virginal fiancee, Michaela, and his Gypsy lover.

Opera singers have big, luscious voices and are trained to fill vast halls, so scaling a performance down to a space as intimate as Theatre Project can be a challenge. As Carmen, Roland opens her eyes wide but purses her mouth, resulting in a portrayal that not only is seductive, but slightly demented. She has a gorgeous, dark mezzo, but at times in early numbers, some of her quieter utterances were inaudible.

In contrast, when Bonnie McNaughton (Michaela) opens her mouth and lets it rip, even her sweet and pure soprano can seem a tad piercing from a distance of just 3 feet.

Adam Caughey is a sensitive and supple-voiced Don Jose. Ryan de Ryke's portrayal of the bullfighter Escamillo, whom he endows with a blinding self-regard, is the comic highlight of the evening.

At one point, Escamillo announces grandly: "This is a song about bulls and the men who love them."

Take that, Georges Bizet.

if you go

Le Cabaret de Carmen, Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 5. $22-$40. 410-752-8558 or theatreproject.org.

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