Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark

Baby got back: Christina Baldwin as Carmen
Gordon Wright

By 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche had attended 20 performances of Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen. Considering Nietzsche's not unwarranted reputation for sourpussery--this is the author who in The Case of Wagner winkingly warned us to "beware of beauty"--there's something revealing, even touching, about his rapturous appreciation of Bizet's lyrical music. Granted, the philosopher was drawn to the opera's "lascivious melancholy" and to its depiction of "the tragic joke that constitutes the essence of love," which helps explain the mustachioed thinker's tendency to go stag to the opera.

But he was also powerless in the presence of Carmen's anti-Wagnerian loveliness. This is potently beautiful music. It will betray the reluctant romantic and expose the cautious aesthete. God knows what else it can do. By Christmas of '88, Nietzsche was irretrievably insane. Perhaps it wasn't syphilitic paresis that drove the philosopher over the brink, as some have theorized, but merely the 20th hearing of Carmen's habanera.

In another of the opera's famous dances, Carmen sings to her brooding suitor Don José that "it's sad to dance without an orchestra." In Jeune Lune's stripped-down interpretation, this line takes on a special meaning. Of course we shouldn't ask this production to be something it doesn't aspire to. It is an adaptation, done on a scale befitting the company's size and budget. That said, the shadow of Bizet's sumptuous orchestrations hovers over the burgundy, gold, and fiery orange set like an empty seat at a post-divorce Thanksgiving dinner. With all due respect to pianists Barbara Brooks and Kathleen Kraulik, who play wonderfully, and to Bradley Greenwald, who adapted the music and plays Don José, there's a palpable absence about some of it. Unsurprisingly, it's the opera's gentlest pieces that hold up best in this setting.

My ears are perhaps not finely attuned to the finer points of operatic singing, one result of which is that I might be easily impressed by singers with a wider vocal range than, say, Lou Reed or the guy who sang lead on "Surfin' Bird." Still, I feel comfortable in recommending this Carmen to all but exacting and traditional opera freaks. While the orchestration may feel novel, Jeune Lune is faithful to the standard story line, drawn from Prosper Mérimée's novella of the same name. Don José, a soft-spoken corporal, falls in love with the free-spirited Gypsy Carmen, who works in Seville's giant cigar factory (the sexual symbolism of which is obvious). Angelic Micaëla (big-voiced Jennifer Baldwin Peden) is Don José's other love interest, while bullfighter Escamillo (Charles Schwandt) is the corporal's ha-cha-cha rival. Christina Baldwin delivers a slouchy, sympathetic Carmen. Director Dominique Serrand's perfunctory turn as Lieutenant Zuniga (a non-singing role in Jeune Lune's version) is one of several supporting roles that seem puny next to the antiheroine.

With respect to its opposing male suitors, Carmen's love quadrangle directs our sympathies in an atypical direction. Male literary types--most of whom have concave chests and wear frilly underwear under their coffee-stained trousers--usually root for the weakling, and the 19th-century viewer probably did, too. The modern audience, though, must root for the he-man. Don José, the brooding and sensitive corporal, proves to be a pusillanimous woman-killer. As his character sinks from stature to disgrace, Greenwald becomes increasingly stooped and puny. He limps and waddles. By Act 2 he's wearing clown pants. In contrast, Escamillo--despite his strutting vanity and the inherent brutality of his vocation--is an honorable and gentle soul.

For a variety of political and personal reasons, I normally try to keep observations on the physical attributes of performers largely to myself. It's nearly impossible, however, to discuss this production--or presumably any production of Carmen--without noting the bearing of its leading lady. I'm almost embarrassed to report that the backless dress Carmen wears for the finale facilitated a kind of hypnosis in me. I'm also pleased to report that this production is democratic in its ogling opportunities. Schwandt, looking somewhat like a more robust Johnny Depp, is what I understand young people now call a "hottie." His blood-drenched, bare-chested pose for the play's final tableau is the very image of lascivious melancholy.

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