Breathtaking voices fill this modern take on the classic opera Carmen playing at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
These are gorgeous photos, aren’t they? In fact, everything about Loose Tea Theatre’s La Tragedie de Carmen (which played at Buddies in Bad Times) sounds gorgeous – a sultry, 1930s chamber-scale adaptation of Carmen, one of the most enduring and popular pieces of western Opera.
And, luckily, the opera sounds gorgeous as well: Ryan Harper (Don Jose) and especially Cassandra Warner (Carmen) round out an excellent cast of singers. Musical Director Jennifer Tung (who accompanies on piano) has them in fine form, and the effect is helped considerably by how much fun the cast appear to be having on stage.
But though this is a production which sounds gorgeous. I found the experience of watching it to be somewhat less satisfying.
I will admit, before I go any deeper, that I am not intimately familiar with Carmen. I’ve seen adaptations, and – like most–I’m familiar with the score, but I’m by no means functioning at the level of an expert in opera.
With that in mind, wandering home after this show, I found myself asking a key question: “Why should someone see this production of Carmen, instead of another one?” While opera can be difficult to come by, Carmen is fairly easy to track down. What makes this production special? Why see this one, rather than waiting a few more years for the COC to remount it?
And it’s true–this cast has the vocal chops to keep up with the always-excellent Bizet score. Warner and Harper anchor a strong supporting cast, including Gregory Finney, whose comic Escamillo steals every scene in which he appears. Insofar as this show has problems, they aren’t with the cast.
But as a whole piece of theatre, this production has some very weak elements. A costume which fell apart, and though the actors salvaged it, what was clearly meant to be a major “reveal” was ruined. A moment of stage combat so awkward that members of the audience were giggling during a death scene.
While the performers are oustanding singers and embody their roles perfectly, they may be too talented at the latter. Often it feels like Carmen and Don Jose are in different shows altogether. Operatic numbers generally don’t lend themselves kindly to intimacy between performers, but given the chamber-sized staging, and considering how many changes are made to the script in any event, the fact that so many of the tender scenes felt downright cold is a problem.
Above all, the setting–which is promoted as integral to the show and staging–struck me as both disjointed and irrelevant. Press materials say 1920s and 1930s, while the costumes are situated firmly in the 1940s (except for one actor, dressed as a flapper–and another as a wild west saloon girl), and the set is so insubstantial and vague that – in my judgment–the best option would have been to cut it altogether, rather than have the audience sit in the dark for 60 seconds between scenes as furniture is clunked around.
I realize that self-identifying operagoers may have different standards for this piece; as someone who inhabits a more conventionally-theatrical world, I may be fixating on elements which are not considered highly important or relevant by those “in the know”.
But to return to the question I asked earlier – why see this production rather than any other?–I found I couldn’t answer it. Yes, the cast are excellent–but opera casts, as a rule, sing quite well. And especially when this show as hyped as a new take on an old classic–something more accessible, something relevant, something more in-touch with what a theatrical audience expects–that I was left feeling like I’d essentially watched a cast album left me feeling disappointed.
Which is a pity, because damn, these people can sing.
- La Tragedie de Carmen played at Buddies in Bad Times between September 6th and 8th, 2013.
Photograph of the cast by Kevin Patrick Robbins.