One of the things that art does best is invite us to consider the world from a fresh perspective. One of the things that contemporary artists can do best is push us to experience classic forms of art in an all new light. Opera MODO has embraced this mandate, and to its Executive Director and Founder, we say ‘Brava!’
“Carmen,” by George Bizet, is one of the best known, most loved and most frequently performed operas in the classical canon. But when it debuted in Paris in 1875, audiences were scandalized by the controversial heroine, who brazenly defied social convention and flaunted her lusty appetite for lovers. In the iconic aria “La Habanera,” Carmen describes love as a bird no one can tame and as the gypsy that lives outside the law. Even the Belle Époque Parisians were shocked.
It is especially appropriate, then, that Danielle Wright chose a modern setting for this production of “Carmen” that taps into the title character’s deservedly provocative reputation. Taking a cue from “Orange is the New Black,” this brilliant production is staged in a woman’s penitentiary (scenic design by Jeremy Barnett and Jason Maracani) and rotates cast members across a gender-neutral schedule. Unfortunately, you only have one chance to see this thoroughly entertaining production; the final show is on Sunday, February 28 at 3 p.m. Make the effort.
The performance we reviewed on Friday evening featured Bryan DeSilva in the lead role as a trans-gender woman who has seductive power over both guards and inmates, males and females, indiscriminately. This new spin on the familiar gypsy figure underscores the primal power she exudes – a conceit made good on from the moment DeSilva unleashes his powerful, agile and sultry mezzo. (Jennifer Trombley performed the title role for the first weekend of the run and, by all reports, was also stunning.)
For the Friday night show, DeSilva’s thrilling Carmen was paired with soprano Melissa Crosby as Don José, the naïve prison guard whom Carmen seduces and ultimately throws over for the prison Warden. Her rendering of the tender “flower song” was beautifully expressed and it was fascinating to hear this tenor aria sung in the same key but an octave higher. Crosby has alternated, throughout the run, with critically acclaimed tenor Shawn McDonald, who will sing the final show on Sunday.
Alternating in the role of Jose’s sweet, jilted fiancé are Nicole Joseph and Leslie Mason. The sweeping range of emotions Ms. Joseph brings to her honeyed, effortless voice are especially moving and she owned the stage at each appearance. Also alternating in featured roles are Carmen’s two friends and fellow inmates Mercedes (Mimi Lanseur/Helen Hass) and Frasquita (Jennifer Braun/Jessica Mary Murphy). Whether they are taunting Carmen, boxing each other, or telling their own fortunes, these women bring big energy and entertainment value to the production – backed by first-rate voices.
In this production, the popular role of Escamillo the toreador is realized as the prison Warden—a former champion boxer. Baritone Joe Johnson uses these credentials to motivate the likable swagger that he brings to the role; who can blame Carmen for recognizing a kindred spirit? With his commanding voice – which easily filled the Jam Handy performance space to every corner and rafter – Johnson treats the audience to a lovely case of goosebumps. This is the real deal.
Comic relief is offered in the form of two male prison guards: the lecherous Morales is wonderfully sung and acted by Constantine Novotny and Jeffrey Wilkinson is brilliant as his foil, Le Remendado.
The Ladies Chorus, who make up the remaining guards and inmates, have the most fun in this production. It’s a physical performance that requires a great deal of energy, and these women bring it on. FULL DISCLOSURE: a much beloved niece sings in the chorus, and this reviewer is biologically compelled to say that she is the best one. That said, the entire group is bursting with talent, and includes: Sara Ball, Rebecca Eaddy, Sarah Herhilan, Erika Kowalski, Hannah Shaughnessy-Mogill, Katrina Van Maanen, and Jillian Van Overbeke.
In conceiving this unique production of “Carmen,” Danielle Wright made the wise decision to prune extraneous material and eschew super-titles; the show runs at a tight two hours, with a brief intermission. Maestro Steven McGhee is the musical director, with conducting assistance from Matthew Abernathy and J.J. Pearse. One result of editing the score is that the amazing seven-piece orchestra, which is on stage for the entire performance, gets a true aerobic workout. Although we are habituated to hearing the full orchestration of “Carmen,” or perhaps because of this expectation, we found this intimate arrangement to be profoundly satisfying. Each pizzicato note of the cello, each trill of the flute, and each alluring note from the violin is palpable.
It is gratifying whenever productions of such iconic shows as “Carmen” surprise and delight us. This Opera MODO production gets high marks on both counts. It opened at the Carr Center and concludes at Detroit’s old Jam Handy building (2900 E Grand Blvd.), which is ideally suited to this deconstructed “Carmen” and offers amazing acoustics.
Georges Bizet did not live long enough to see the popularity that “Carmen” enjoyed in the year following its opening. With this production, we hope he would experience a bit of the eyebrow- and consciousness-raising response he provoked more than 140 years ago. We suspect he would be gratified to see how relevant the tragic story of his freedom-loving gypsy remains today.