Carmen is the story of two overlapping love triangles. Don Jose (Bradley Greenwald), a Basque soldier stationed in Seville, is torn between the love of Micaela (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), a pixie-like orphan taken in by his mother, and Carmen (Christina Baldwin), the gypsy woman working at a Seville tobacco factory. Carmen is the "love them and leave them" type, but when she attempts to trade Don Jose for Escamillo (Bill Murray) the toreador, tragedy sets in.
Baldwin is sublime in the title role. She avoids the clichés of the smoldering firecracker, finding Carmen’s sexiness in a laissez-faire attitude towards the men around her. When her claws come out in the second act, the effect is as devastating to the audience as it is to her lovers.
Peden gives us a quirky Micaela, far more interesting than the simple country girl the lyrics imply she is. Her big aria in the second act is a show-stopping tour de force, filling the entire theatre with her beautiful anguish.
Unfortunately, the men in the show don’t match the women. Greenwald's Don Jose has a tendency to fade into the background. He holds himself with an awkwardness that is certainly in character with his wandering outsider status. Yet his portrayal leaves the audience wondering how he ever ended up in the center of a love triangle between two gorgeous women.
Thomas Derrah, the only member of the A.R.T. repertory company appearing, also is the only actor with a non-singing role. He brings a suitable nastiness to the role of Zuniga. Murray, as the toreador, is not quite threatening enough, not quite sexy enough, and not quite up to the vocal demands of his part, although he comes close. And yet, the show works, in large part on the strength of the women.
Musically, the show is a treat. Music director Barbara Brooks, who doubles as one of the two pianists, has made the most of Bizet's many textures and dynamics. Singers explore the full range of their voices, from full-throated to whisper, and it all sounds crisp and clear without a microphone in evidence.
Opera purists may blanche at the loss of an orchestra, or to the lowering of some keys for a baritone in the role of Don Jose (generally a tenor role). But the two-piano arrangement, splendidly realized by the fingers of Brooks and Kathleen Kraulik, creates an intimacy that befits a production in a theatre this size.
Don't let the label of "opera" fool you. This is theatre for everyone, and the best kind at that. It will draw you in, engage your mind, provoke your heart, and leave you wanting more.
Carmen, presented by the American Repertory Theatre in association with Theatre de la Jeune Lune at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street in Cambridge, now through October 8. Consult the A.R.T. website for curtain times. Ticket prices range from $37 to $74. Discounts available for students, seniors, and subscribers. Tickets for all performances can be ordered in advance through the A.R.T. Box Office by calling (617) 547-8300, by mail, or through the Internet at the A.R.T.'s website at www.amrep.org. Box office hours are noon to curtain time on performance days, noon to 5 p.m. on non-performance days, closed on Mondays.
The A.R.T.'s season continues with the English-language premiere of The Keening, by Humberto Dorado, at the Zero Arrow Street Theatre, October 14 – November 12.
Photo: Michal Daniel