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REVIEW: Skylark Opera Theatre Charges Back with Tragedy of Carmen

Tess Altiveros as Carmen.

Skylark Opera Theatre’s artistic director Bob Neu made headlines last year with his Angels & Demons Entertainment production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Hill House. When Skylark announced its first season after last spring’s sudden cancellation, therefore, expectations were high for something other than business as usual. The company’s The Tragedy of Carmen, now playing at the Midpointe Event Center in St. Paul, is a striking return to the Twin Cities opera scene.

There are many versions of Bizet’s classic opera Carmen, but you probably haven’t seen this one before. The adaptation by Peter Brook is a seductive charge through 90 minutes of music, dancing, flirting, and brooding. It’s in English, with no supertitles, and staged in a way where the front row is often less than a foot from the action. (Come early for the best seats, although really, you’re never going to be too far from what’s going on.) For operagoers familiar with Carmen, this is rather like seeing Batman Begins after watching the Tim Burton Batman original: Same essential material, very different vibe.

That different vibe starts with the space. Midpointe Event Center’s Sterling Hall is essentially a large dance studio/event space, with some classy chandeliers and a perfect-sized acoustic for these voices and instrumentation. A grand piano, viola, and cello are used to render the score, sounding clearly and distinctly from the singers, while the sprung wood floor warms up the sounds of voices and dance steps.

As one might expect, any production of Carmen hinges on the performance of its titular character. As Carmen, Tess Altiveros is eye-catching and ear-catching with her performance; her movement is dynamic and, above all, intensely seductive. Don José (Laurent Kuehnl) doesn’t stand a chance in this story – from the first time you see them interact, it’s clear that he’s smitten, and not in the best way, either. Kuehnl’s portrayal is more raw and brooding than tormented – this José has more than a few obsessive issues before Carmen struts into his life.

Watching Altiveros’s Carmen seduce various characters in the up close and personal is a large part of this production’s charm, as are the knife fights. It’s the little things that really bring this out, like the flourishes of vibrato in John Allen Nelson’s Toreador aria (as Escamillo) and the exquisite decorations his jacket. These are things that you usually don’t get to see and hear nearly as well, and it’s a pleasant basket of treats. There is room for a little more stage blood to keep with the “shock us with realism” theme.

Is this a Carmen for Carmen fans? For such a well-known piece, it’s hard to miss that your favorite music usually comes with a large orchestra. Pianist and music director Barbara Brooks keeps things moving nicely, however, interjecting an extra pulse of energy into the dance pieces; it’s only near the end that the three-piece ensemble feels notably thin. Call it a sister work to Carmen and treat it as its own animal.

Where this specific staging works best is in its immediacy, to the people in the front row who can see everything and feel the pounding of dancing feet against the floor. A few chair risers would certainly improve the sight lines, as would (again) more stage blood for the benefit of people who weren’t at the right angle to see everything. There’s also a curious matter of a vanishing gun (the antithesis of Chekov’s gun, really) and some vagueness about what/where events take place. If you know the normal Carmen story well, these aren’t important omissions, but if you walk in with no prior knowledge of the narrative, you might just be a bit confused when you finally figure out that the bewitching lady in a black ensemble and stiletto knee-highs is not a prostitute. Or find yourself wondering if Jennifer Baldwin Peden’s Micaela is supposed to be Don José’s ex-girlfriend or his mother.

The Tragedy of Carmen plays through Feb. at the Midpointe Event Center in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine