SummerFest’s Tour of “Carmen the Gypsy” is On!

carmenAnd it’s “on” in more ways than one. The reworking of Bizet’s classic (a success during the “SummerFest” of 2012, but new to the writer) had its first performance Wednesday night, at The Sphinx Café in Oakland, and clearly pleased the number of patrons that could be packed into the small venue. Much of the glory of the original masterpiece is necessarily stripped away – the immense choruses and throngs of extras so integral to the plot; the magnificent orchestration that makes the overtures some of the finest to be heard in French operatic literature – but clever innovations in this condensed version, sung in English, make it an entertaining evening of music and surprisingly lively action nonetheless.

Jonathan Eaton, Artistic and General Director, and Robert Frankenberry, Music Director, are to be commended on a job well done in this “re-creation” of the popular and enduring original. As the company states in its “mission,” Opera Theater of Pittsburgh “presents innovative opera in English, producing American works, reinterpretations of older works, and new works, for the widest possible audience. Opera Theater focuses on diversity in programming and casting, on crossing boundaries and bringing together talents from all the arts, on encouraging new talent, and on broadening audiences through outreach and education, to create a body of work that is original, entertaining, contemporary and relevant.” With Carmen the Gypsy, the company has accomplished its mission once again.

The original four acts of Bizet’s Carmen are condensed into two in Carmen the Gypsy. A first glance at the program notes led one who had never seen the production before to wonder how this was possible. Was it to be a “concert version” in costume – just the main arias and “set pieces” held together with a bit of dialogue and action; and what could a guitarist and an accordion player in the small band of instrumentalists possibly add when the full orchestration would likely be greatly missed? But it quickly became apparent that this would be no concert, and that the instrumentalists mentioned would add quite a bit to the feel and flavor of the piece. They actually lent an appropriately exotic sound to the flamenco-styled presentation of the characters, music and action, a more erotically charged shading that supported the passions of the youthful and more vigorous cast quite effectively.

Probably the cleverest innovation in the work is an alteration to the character of the demure Micäela, which makes the elimination of the cigarette factory, its huge cast of extras, an event so pivotal to Carmen’s troubles very plausible. Micäela may initially come to Don José with a kiss from his mother in an attempt to lure him back home, as in the original, but the kisses grow more frequent and become more passionate to the point where her intentions are made quite clear, and it is she who goes after the flirtatious Carmen with a dagger. She’s quickly knocked down and disarmed, but the dagger is soon in Carmen’s hand, and she slashes Micäela across the face to make her own intentions regarding Don José cruelly unmistakable. In the original, Carmen is temporarily detained by Don José until an arrest warrant can be gotten after she, Carmen, goes after a co-worker in the cigarette factory with a knife. Here, with a few more kisses and a more obvious romantic interest in the dragoon sergeant on the part of Micäela, Carmen is given her chance to work her wiles and cajole Don José into allowing her to escape, with the dramatic factory fracas largely unmissed. Micäela may return in the second act in the traditional novice garb (and with a nasty scar) to sing her great aria, but her impassioned outburst in the first quite neatly, if less spectacularly, keeps the plot going.Carmen at Sphinx - from balcony 2

The elimination of scenes that more clearly depict Don José’s utter ruination at the hands of the fickle gypsy make his ultimate actions somewhat less believable and a bit more excessive, but for the rest, the work is in keeping with the original; nearly all of the famous arias remain, and the characters are brought more vividly to life than in most of the performances of Bizet’s opera that the writer has witnessed. This is largely due to a great deal of talent in the cast, but the work itself is a worthy one. The famous overture to the first act is omitted, and it’s only minutes into the music that Don José and Micäela are singing their exquisite duet, but the prelude to Bizet’s third act, one of the most ravishingly beautiful in opera, opens the second act of Carmen the Gypsy.

Conductor Robert Frankenberry made the most of his reduced orchestration with a sure hand. The program notes mention only a violin, clarinet, accordion, guitar and piano, but there were a flute, cello and a few more instruments that supported the singing actors quite effectively. Usually Carmen mimes the clicking of castanets on the stage while the sound wafts incongruously up from the orchestra pit, but in this production, Carmen handles them herself, and quite capably.

Katie Manukyan
Katie Manukyan

In fact, most of what Kara Cornell did in the title role was done with a high degree of success. She certainly is able to present a visual picture of the alluring and irresistible gypsy with the gifts nature gave her, and she has a lovely mezzo-soprano voice of abundant power and more than adequate flexibility, although her “tra-la-las” were somewhat dry. She acted the part with appropriate vigor, sang the earlier arias with a fine sense of seductive diablerie, and the sobering card-reading scene quite dramatically. No amount of temporary tattooing could disguise her attractiveness, and she clicks a mean castanet. James Flora, as Don José, while not quite presenting an especially romantic illusion in the role, sang for the most part with a strong tenor voice of nice quality. His acting of the part matched Ms. Cornell’s intensity when necessary, and in the final, fatal moments of the opera, their altercation was quite a physical one – not excessively brutal, but far more effective than any the writer has seen lately. Katie Manukyan sang and acted the role of Micäela with the added vehemence and intensity this production allows.

Christopher Scott, foreground
Christopher Scott (left)

Christopher Scott delivered an Escamillo that was as handsome and stalwart as could possibly be offered, and he sang the part with a baritone voice of great strength and purity. He acted the role with talent equal to his vocal interpretation, and made quite a picture when he appeared in his “Toreador” costume near the end of the second act. He and Miles Wilson-Toliver, as Dancaïre, one of the smugglers, were the most successful among the male contingent of the cast. The latter sang with a baritone voice of exceptional quality, power and warmth, and acted the part with a wonderful sense of abandonment. He, too, is a young man of imposing presence.

Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès were brought more prominently to the fore than is customary by two gifted young women named Emily – Emily Baker as the former, and Emily Harmon as the latter. Both sang and acted their roles quite well. They added greatly to the evening in general, and to the famous quintet in particular. This gem was taken at a less harried tempo than usual, and became more engagingly enjoyable because of its slower pace. With Carmen, Frasquita, Mercédès, Dancaïre and Remendado engaged in this enchanting ensemble, it was one of the most charming moments of the evening.

George Milosh, Miles Wilson-Toliver, Kara Cornell, Emily Baker and Emily Harmon
George Milosh, Miles Wilson-Toliver, Kara Cornell, Emily Baker and Emily Harmon

Patrick McGill (Zuniga), Ethan Sagin (Moralès) and George Milosh (Remendado) rounded out the cast with varying degrees of success, while one of the most engaging performances of the evening was given by a lovely woman who never uttered a word or sang a note. Olivia Kissel, billed as the Innkeeper, exquisitely costumed, was mesmerizing in appearance, and her exotic dances entwined into the action throughout the evening were highly effective. She is also credited as the choreographer of the production, and she earned every bit of the tremendous applause she received when the two hours of entertainment came to its conclusion.

Olivia Kissel, James Flora and Kara Cornell
Olivia Kissel, James Flora and Kara Cornell

There is just one more chance to catch Carmen the Gypsy at the Sphinx Café – Thursday, June 23, at 7 p.m., but the tour moves next to Artifacts on the West End, Saturday, June 25, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 26, at 2 p.m. The next venue is Snuggery Farm in Sewickley, where the work will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on the evenings of Friday, July 1 and Saturday, July 2, with a final staged performance on Saturday, July 9, at 7:30 p.m. in the Falk Auditorium of the Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside. The production is very enjoyable, and not only opera lovers, but novices, are highly encouraged to take advantage of the remaining performances.

For tickets, dates, upcoming events, background information and much, much more, please visit SummerFest. Or take a look at our season preview here.

Special thanks to Opera Theater of Pittsburgh for the complimentary press admission. Would you like to see more articles and reviews from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!

Production credits for Carmen the Gypsy

Music, Georges Bizet; Libretto, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy; English Translation, Sheldon Harnick; Director, Jonathan Eaton; Conductor and Reduced Orchestration, Robert Frankenberry; Choreographer, Olivia Kissel; Lighting Designer, Bob Steineck; Costume Designer, Cynthia Albert; Tour Lighting Designer, Madeline Steineck; Hair & Makeup Designer, Taylor Rouse; Assistant Director & Tour Manager, Seamus Ricci; Assistant Conductor, Joel Goodloe; Pianist, Alec Chapman; Tattoo Designer, Michelle Babkes; Stage Manager, Jody Cohen; Assistant Stage Manager, Jessica Feldman.

Photography: Mark Abramowitz, Ryan McKelvey and Jonathan Eaton.