THE DEATH OF CARMEN
"Free she was born," declares the gypsy Carmen of herself, shortly before her deranged ex-lover knocks her off, "and free she will die!" Would that were true of The Death of Carmen, Victoria Bussert and Russ Borski's new version of Georges Bizet's 1875 opera. The Death of Carmen was hardly born free; it was created as a subscription-season obligation, after Pegasus learned it could not get the rights to La Tragedie de Carmen, Peter Brook's theatrical adaptation of the same source, which had already been announced as Pegasus's spring musical. Rather than substitute an entirely different show, Pegasus felt forced to stick as close as possible to the plans it had already announced. One can't help noticing that the fliers for The Death of Carmen are the ones originally printed for La Tragedie de Carmen, with stickers pasted on to block out the old title.
The problem is, the Bussert-Borski Death of Carmen feels as recycled as its fliers. This is a solution to a marketing problem, not a work of art. And it seems so unnecessary: after all, there's hardly much public hue and cry for a new version of Carmen, nor is there anything wrong with the old one. In her long and generally artistically rewarding association with Pegasus Players, Victoria Bussert has directed such fine productions as Pacific Overtures, The Frogs, and last season's marvelous Anyone Can Whistle--all flawed works by Stephen Sondheim that profited from the inspiration of a talented young director who could make the shows work better than they had on Broadway. Here, Bussert has been assigned to fix problems that didn't exist, simply because Pegasus's season demanded a Carmen. One is reminded of Dennis the Menace's motto: "If it ain't broke, break it."
The Death of Carmen is considerably shorter and less expensive to stage than Bizet's original. The main reason for both differences is that Bussert and Russ Borski, her designer and co-adapter (and husband), have stripped the opera of its chorus, leaving us with a cast of six in the principal roles. Though much music has been cut and replaced with spoken dialogue, most of the famous material is preserved--not only the arias, but also big choral numbers like the "Torreador Song," performed here by the bullfighter Escamillo with the coarse backup of a couple of buddies. And the score's luster is remarkably well served by the chamber orchestra led by music director Joseph Thalken.
But the spectacle is entirely gone. Instead of grand opera, we have an intimate play. This would not be bad at all--if Bussert had heightened the intensity of the relationships among the principal characters. But because she's also tried to keep a high level of musicianship, Bussert has been forced to cast lead performers whose singing is not, shall we say, well supported by dramatic capabilities.
Or, for that matter, good diction. Though she's singing in English, Leslie Fitzwater as Carmen is almost impossible to understand through three-fourths of the evening; her big, lush voice is all sound and no meaning. She's also far too white and bland- looking to be visually convincing as the fiery gypsy she's playing. As Carmen's ill-fated adorer Don Jose, White Eagle fares only moderately better. His voice isn't as good as Fitzwater's, especially in his painfully strained high range, but at least you can understand his words most of the time. The combination of his imposing physical size and very gentle personality make him interesting to watch onstage, but he's finally unconvincing as a man driven to violent extremes by desire. (Fitzwater and White Eagle are replaced by Barbara Landis and Darrell Rowader at Sunday matinees.)
Baritone Allan Roberts makes a dull and sluggish bullfighter Escamillo; Michael Dickson and Jason Singer are fairly nondescript in the smaller roles of Don Jose's superior officer Zuniga and the crooked innkeeper Lilias Pastia. The production's one successful performance comes from Mimi Manners as Don Jose's ever- loyal hometown girlfriend Micaela: her beautiful soprano sound projects her words clearly rather than absorbing them, and she handles her admittedly limited good-girl role convincingly and gracefully.
Borski's set and lighting de
sign, as his designs so often are, is both elegant and earthy: a long wood wall set in a stageful of sand, suggesting the outside of a small-town bullring but also serving acceptably as a gypsy camp in the hills, often lit by flames from a campfire or candles. But the mood of gypsy magic suggested by firelight is undermined by modern touches in Jeff Kelly's costumes and Bussert's staging: Carmen runs around in spandex pants and a bra, like a suburban brat punking out at Medusa's before she heads back to Lake Forest; Escamillo boasts of his bullfighting bravery to a crowd of microphone- and camera-waving reporters. Gestures like these seem intended to cast the old tale in recognizable relevant terms. But the story's really relevant element--intense sexual passion--is notably absent. There's some hip-grinding here, a little crotch-jutting there, some writhing in the sand now and then, even an occasional caress, but not a moment that's believably erotic or emotional. The tragedy of Carmen--the reason the story has gripped audiences' imaginations for more than a century--is that an overwhelming life force leads so inexorably to death. Without that life force, Pegasus's The Death of Carmen is stillborn.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.