Sung as grand opera or hip-hop, set in the Balkans, South Africa or the American South, re-envisioned by Jean-Luc Godard. Matthew Bourne or Peter Brook, Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” lives a theatrical gypsy life, as befits his nomadic, resilient heroine, teasing, taunting and seducing every step — even if she doesn’t go all the way.
Cirque du Soleil and director Franco Dragone will next make it to Broadway with the babe of Seville (though not with Bizet’s score). One suspects it will be more lush than this stripped-down version presented by Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the Minneapolis-based company that won a Tony Award this year.
Its 2003 production is now configured and slightly recast for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., a kindred company of daring, imagination and intelligence.
While not as intense as Brook’s celebrated 1983 version, in which the action was concentrated on the quartet of leads, this adaptation of “Carmen” also eschews pageantry for the personal and strikes similar notes of intimacy, passion and theatrical starkness.
Sung in French with English supertitles and accompanied by dueling pianos (strikingly played by Barbara Brooks and Kathy Kraulik), this is a Carmen without the trimmings. What it does have are perfs of emotional honesty, powerfully sung.
At the center is a properly mesmerizing perf by Christina Baldwin as the barefoot gypsy heroine who loves her freedom more than her men. Baldwin is a dark tigress/temptress, and it’s easy to see how she dominates the libidos in town, including priest-turned-soldier Don Jose (Bradley Greenwald).
This Don Jose is a baritone taking over the part normally given to a tenor. (Greenwald also adapted the music for the production.) Thesp makes his character’s transition from sweet to smitten, from obsessed to insane, convincing and at times even riveting.
Jennifer Baldwin Peden holds her own as the love-struck innocent orphan Michaela, with an exquisite voice of purity and purpose. Bill Murray is in fine voice as Escamillo, the bullfighter who also falls for Carmen. But Murray’s wispy physicality is far from the charismatic and robust rival needed to make the final conflict a heavyweight fight.
ART company member Thomas Derrah does a reliably sinister turn in the non-singing role of Zuniga. Modest and well-cast chorus gives solid support.
Helmer Serrand creates memorable moments: A single child soldier enters the square singing to begin the play; characters often break the fourth wall and go out into the audience; duets are sung prostrate, or in bondage, or as characters climb walls.
However, not all attempts to make a strong visual statement are successful. Serrand designs an ugly, confusing and occasionally useless gray play space. An industrial brick wall with a ladder to rarely used scaffolding looms large over a rectangle of dirt. It’s a fine space for the exterior of a cigar factory, but when the action moves to other locales, including a mountainside retreat, the dreary set serves little purpose.
Barbara Berlovitz’s costumes are grittily brilliant, some oddly fashionable (with the exception of Don Jose’s Zorro-meets-Izod outfit at show’s climax).
Still, this chamber opera version has plenty of pleasures and passion among the familiar refrains. That it doesn’t quite come together as a whole is disappointing, but show should find support among theater and opera fans who like their popular revivals well acted and well sung, and with a twist for good measure.