Arts & Events

New: Peter Brook’s LA TRAGÉDIE DE CARMEN at S.F. Conservatory of Music

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday December 05, 2015 - 03:52:00 PM

In 1982 Peter Brook presented in Paris a scaled-down version of Georges Bizet’s ever-popular opera, Carmen. Staged in a gigantic converted sports arena, Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen was conceived as a drama for the masses, not your usual lavish opera spectacle but rather a version of Bizet’s opera that stripped everything to its dramatic essentials in order to highlight the structure of tragedy which Brook believes underlies the ‘Carmen’ story. Brook cut away about a third of the narrative, producing an 82-minute version of Carmen that was a model of dramatic condensation and narrative clarity. Brook also eliminated, or at least minimized, all the factitious appurtenances of “Spanishness” that have adhered to the ‘Carmen’ story, choosing to emphasize instead an archetypal primitiveness, a trans-historical quality, with suggestions of ancient Greek tragedy, that enhances the suggestion of universality in Brook’s tragic vision. In Brook’s Paris production of La Tragédie de Carmen, African drums introduced the Habanera music.  

On Friday evening, December 4, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music presented the first of two performances of Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen. Director Heather Mathews honored Brook’s story-line and musical abridgement, but she regrettably re-inserted all the Spanish “local color” that Brook sought to eliminate. Whereas Brook’s version was set in a circle drawn in a sand pit – i.e., a site of primitive ritual – Heather Mathews placed the drama in the shadow of a hokey piece of stage scenery depicting, first, the outside of a plaza de toros, then, when rotated, the inside of Lilias Pastia’s tavern and, in the final scene, the inside of a bullring.  

Meanwhile, Conductor Curt Pajer faithfully limited himself to Brook’s scaled-down orchestra and cast, and Pajer made good use of the connecting music that arranger Marius Constant provided for Brook’s original 1982 production. Thus, at the S.F. Conservatory, La Tragédie de Carmen began not with Bizet’s overture, but with a haunting solo by violist Sam Nelson, whose opening phrases were soon discreetly accompanied by the 14-piece instrumental ensemble. Whereas Peter Brook opened the drama with Carmen brooding over a deck of cards she continually shuffled in seeking to know her fate, Heather Mathews opens the drama with Carmen asleep under the arches of the plaza de toros, where she is encountered by the young, innocent Micaela, who is searching for her home-town boyfriend, Don José, for whom she has a letter from his mother. Carmen, who has not yet met Don José, takes an immediate dislike to Micaela, and taunts her, then haughtily leaves the stage.  

Don José, a low-ranking army officer, arrives and encounters Micaela, who launches into Bizet’s familiar music when Don José sings, « Parle-moi de ma mère. » Micaela is here sung by Ellen Leslie, who displayed a bright, clear soprano voice and excellent French diction. Don José is here sung by young Mexican tenor Mario Rojas, who impressed me greatly when I heard him sing the role of Nemerino in L’Elisir d’amore last April here at the Conservatory. Rojas, one of the youngest ever to win Mexico’s Plácido Domingo scholarship, sang the role of Don José with superb clarity of tone and impressive power. He is clearly a lyric tenor with a great future. Carmen is here sung by mezzo-soprano Marissa Simmons, who possesses a very deep mezzo voice that is somehow lacking in subtlety of coloration. Simmons possesses, however, the charismatic stage-presence that is needed to bring off the role of Carmen successfully.  

Following Micaela’s brief interlude with Don José, Carmen again enters the scene and again taunts Micaela. A fight ensues, with the two women scratching one another’s faces and pulling hair. This fight between Micaela and Carmen replaces the fracas involving Carmen and the cigarette-factory girls in Bizet’s Carmen. Don José breaks up the fight. Carmen, annoyed by Don José’s intervention, begins flirting with him, almost taunting him. Don José’s superior officer orders him to lock up Carmen, which he does, but only half-heartedly, because he is already under Carmen s seductive sway. Carmen suggests that if Don José lets her escape, she’ll meet him later at her friend Lilias Pastia’s tavern, where they’ll drink manzanilla and dance the seguidella. All this, of course, is familiar to us from Bizet’s Carmen. Seduced by the gypsy, Don José lets Carmen escape, and is demoted in rank by his superior officer. 

Now the scene changes to the interior of Lilias Pastia’s tavern, where Carmen entertains various lovers. Don José enters, and is immediately jealous of a man who drunkenly persists in making advances to Carmen. Don José engages this drunkard in a fight, knocks him out cold, and apparently finishes him off with a strangling choke-hold. The drunkard is carted off by Carmen’s fellow gypsy-women, while Lilias Pastia, here sung brightly by soprano Alexandra Gilliam, boasts of the conviviality of her establishment. Carmen herself begins dancing provocatively for Don José. Suddenly, Don José hears the bugle sound the call for all soldiers to return to camp. He protests that he must obey the call. Carmen ridicules him, singing, “Taratata, and off you go. Is this all that love means to you?” Don José, overcome with passion, assures Carmen he loves her very deeply, and off they go to bed. Gypsy-women discreetly cover them with a blanket. Their post-coital sleep is disturbed by a man who enters, throws off their blanket, and says, in spoken recitative, “Didn’t Carmen tell you about me? I’m Garcia, her husband.” A fight ensues, and Don José kills Garcia. This is material straight out of Prosper Merimée’s novel, which was left out, however, from the libretto fashioned by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy for Bizet’s Carmen.  

Now the noted toreador Escamillo enters Lilias Pastia’s tavern, and he begins flirting with Carmen. Don José is again jealous, and he picks a fight with Escamillo, going at him with a knife. Carmen intervenes, and Escamillo thanks her for saving his life. He assures Don José they’ll meet again in battle, and he’ll be better prepared next time. Escamillo is here sung by baritone Justin Gaudoin, who vocally is not up to the macho role of Escamillo, singing lightly and almost effeminately as the brave bullfighter. However, Carmen seems entranced by Escamillo.  

The scene changes now to the inside of the bullring, where Carmen watches from under an archway as the off-stage bullfight takes place. Don José enters and seeks to pursue their love affair, but Carmen tells him all is over between them. “Then you don’t love me anymore?” sings Don José, imploringly. He insists, “Carmen, there is still time for us.” She is equally insistent that it’s over. “You may kill me, if you wish, but I’ll never give in. I live free and I’ll die free.” Just then, Escamillo’s dead body is carried through the arena on the shoulders of two men, the toreador having been fatally gored by the bull. Don José makes one last attempt to kiss Carmen and win her back. When she coldly rebuffs his kiss, he stabs her, and she dies, the music ceasing and the stage-lights dimming to black, as Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen comes to a suitably tragic end. In Brook’s view, the notion of individual fate is paramount in the ‘Carmen’ story, just as in Greek tragedy a headlong individual dares to challenge society’s laws, moving “beyond the pale” of conventional society, and ultimately falling victim not so much to the vengeance of society (although that too), as this over-reaching individual falls victim to hubris, or over-bearing pride, a fate that awaits all three of the principal antagonists in Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen. Although the Conservatory staging of this opera by Heather Mathews makes only a half-hearted attempt to render Peter Brook’s stark vision, the searing intensity of Brook’s streamlined narrative retains its power, especially when sung by the brilliant Mario Rojas and the charismatic Marissa Simmons.