Emotion powers Jeune Lune's Carmen and Pangea's Tales from Ovid
Amidst glorious singing, ever-creative Theatre de la Jeune Lune reworks Bizet's Carmen to fully exploit the emotional drama of its plot and to give the most enthralling production of the opera that I have seen.
Set in Seville in Spain, a dutiful soldier, Don José, betroths himself to Micaela from his village but falls passionately in love with Carmen, a gypsy who works at the local cigarette factory. He allows Carmen to escape imprisonment, deserts from the army and joins her on a smuggling gig into the mountains. She soon tires of his possessive love and falls for Escamillo, a bullfighter. Don José, now a fugitive, returns to Seville and, while Escamillo bullfights, he begs Carmen to come with him. When she refuses, he stabs her to keep her from Escamillo.
Jeune Lune's creative team trims the opera from three hours to just over two, rearranges and alters scenes, imagines a new back-story for Don José and creates a fuller role for Micaela. With this more theatrically integrated story combined with Dominique Serrand's deft directing, the acting ability of a gifted threesome of singers and a strong supportive ensemble makes for a powerful evening of opera.
Beautiful Christina Baldwin sings untamed Carmen in a warm mezzo-soprano that first works its sexual magic in her provocative "Habenera" outside the tobacco factory gates. Her Carmen is a hot seducer of men, yet she also cracks open her character's suppressed longing to be truly loved. She reveals her feelings in the scene at Lilia Pastia's (here a bordello) as she sings a tender "Lalalala" while making love to Don José. Baldwin's Carmen feels fully authentic.
The same holds true for Bradley Greenwald's Don José; the role is a gift for Greenwald, who emanates a natural sweetness on stage. Don José is a naif, a good man who loses his way. In his supple baritone, with its surprisingly high range, Greenwald floods Don José with tenderness and passion. His "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" melts the heart.
In the role of Micaela, it would have been wasteful not to expand the part, considering the beauty of Jennifer Baldwin Peden's clear soprano. In this telling, Micaela emerges as more than a simple victim of chance; she's a shy girl who shows courage and tenacity in her attempt to rescue Don José from his self-destructive love of Carmen. Her "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" is lyrical and touching.
As Escamillo, the bullfighter, Charles Schwandt pales beside the sun of his co-leads. His bass voice lacks volume and richness, and he has yet to develop as an actor.
Among the strong ensemble, Jane Anderson sings a blousy Lillia Pastia, Justin Madel and Thomas Melander convince as down-and-dirty smugglers, and Jill Anna Posniak and Momoko Tanno shine as Carmen's friends.
Director Serrand plays Lieutenant Zuniga with urbane flair. As director, he stages Carmen in a red dirt square, with two baby grands on stage and the seating arranged along three sides. The square is not quite a bullring, yet it suggests a place for mortal combat. Wonderful details of directing add authenticity to the piece and deepen its relevance - things like the distinctly European smell of lit Gitannes cigarettes, the tobacco dust on the cigarette factory girls' cheap clothes and their apparent poverty. Serrand plays the children in the opening chorus as poor, their play effected by war. This Carmen takes place in a time not so unlike our own, a time of war and neglected social needs.
Sonya Berlovitz's costumes are a timeless mix that include tied-on plastic water bottles, homemade cotton shifts cut from flour-sack cloth, shabby suits, come-on bordello gear and a beautifully designed dress for Carmen at opera's end, a gift from Escamillo.
Carmen is sung and spoken in French, with English surtitles.
The opening of Jeune Lune's Carmen coincided with the opening in New York of the theater's acclaimed Hamlet. The artistic quality of this opera promises a similar path of success. Carmen September 13 - November 3. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8:00 .m. Sundays, 7:00 p.m. $15 - $30. Theatre de la Jeune Lune, 105, North First Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-333-6200.
Pangea World Theater gives poetic readings to the plays it produces, and Tales from Ovid is no exception. In interconnected stories adapted from poet Ted Hughes' translation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" by Tim Supple and Simon Reade, Pangea's international ensemble performs stories loaded with lust, jealousy, greed, incest, rape and revenge. Whether you are familiar with Ovid's tales or not, Pangea's passionate retelling of flawed humankind's archetypal stories cannot fail to grip you.
This is truly ensemble work in which Sarah Schreiber Prince's dramatic lighting and Mary Ann Kelling's ethereal costumes are as much a part of the play as the 12 players who perform stories of turbulent gods, intersecting with frail humans.
On Ta-coumba Aiken's set of elaborately layered swathes of fabric, raised benches and a painted floor, the goddess Juno burns with jealousy at her husband and brother, Jupiter's, philanderings and tricks the young mortal, Semele, into miscarrying his child. Procne slits her only son's throat and feeds him to her husband, King Terius, to avenge his brutal rape and disfigurement of her beloved sister, Philomela.
These are not stories for the faint-hearted. Director Dipanker Mukherjee skillfully finesses the violence through metaphor and generally retains the awful power of the act.
When Jupiter (e.g. bailey) fulfills his irretractable promise and reveals to Semele (Amyliz Schaub) the burning glory of his godhood, Semele writhes in his heat. Her foetus aborts and a player tumbles out of her body. Enchanted Myrrha (Katie Leo) lusts after her father, King Cinyras (Alberto Pinelli,) and their balletic dance of repeated penetration appalls in its fateful beauty.
Young Arachne (Hlee Vang) weaves tapestries that vie in beauty and perfection with the goddess Minerva's (Liliana Espondaburu). The arrogant girl challenges Minerva to a contest and, in a wonderful scene, goddess and young woman weave within a circle of purple web, spun methodically by ensemble member Pinelli around sticks held by the players. When the beauty of Arachne's tapestry surpasses Minerva's, the goddess both acknowledges the girl's skill and punishes her by turning her into an eternal spinner, a spider.
Mukherjee's treatment of Philomela's violent rape by King Terius (Mathew Jake Ellefson) works, but it works less well. The girl (Vang) huddles stage left while, center stage, Terius thrusts into and beats the folds of a long crimson train he has ripped from her waist. When she swears to tell everyone of his crime, he cuts out her tongue. From where I sat, I failed to understand what he was doing. I saw the yards of red cord he pulled from the heap of fabric and understood it to be blood, but not from her severed tongue. Having Philomela withdraw from the violence might be psychologically right-on, but Mukherjee loses some immediacy in this troubling scene.
Kirstin Franklin sings in a clear soprano for background music and plays the sailor, Acoetes, in a strong scene in which the movement of rowing creates a real-seeming ship out of thin air. Acoetes' desperate attempts to protect the pretty boy-god, Bacchus (A-yia Thoj), from the lusts of her sailors gripped me.
In a novel take, pretty Narcissus (Ellefson) is more responsive to male suitors than to females, and a male Echo (Thoj) draws him to the dewy reflecting pool.
Lookingglass Theatre's successful Metamophoses from Chicago emphasized mutation that felt alchemical on stage. Pangea's Tales creates the passions that beget the metamorphoses. So charged are the ensemble's emotions in some scenes that they break into a tumble of native speech that hots up this retelling to boiling point.
Tales from Ovid. September 12 - September 28. Thursdays through Sundays, 8:00 p.m. Sunday matinees 2:00 p.m. $13 - $15. Pangea World Theater at the Playwrights' Center, 2301, East Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis. 612-203-1088. Photo: Erik Saulitis.