POP Dazzles, Stumbles In ‘Carmen’

Photo courtesy of Martha Benedict/POP Escamillo (Babatunde Akinboboye, center,) crows over Carmen (Nora Graham-Smith, seated).
Photo courtesy of Martha Benedict/POP
Escamillo (Babatunde Akinboboye, center,) crows over Carmen (Nora Graham-Smith, seated).


You could make the argument – perhaps on a day when you wake up to find that your car had been broken into or that the guy right in front of you in line at the local Starbucks bought the last of those chocolate brownies that you love oh-so-dearly or you are simply in grumpy, downright uncharitable frame-of-mind – that Bizet’s “Carmen” is a story of love betrayed strung along a flimsy succession of Spanish stereotypes as seen through the lens of a France that, by the late 19th century, had subjugated its once world-beating, imperialist southern neighbor into easy-going servility and doddering, harmless provincialism. You could say that. But you would be wrong. Bizet’s opera, though certainly reveling in exotica, is a loving, respectful and ultimately humane representation of Spain, its people, its culture. It is also a terrific opera; one that, even some 140 years and literally countless performances later, still packs a full house as Pacific Opera Project (POP) did last Thursday at the Highland Park Ebell Club.

But if one can make the above argument about “Carmen” and still debunk it, POP’s production of it left one on shakier ground.

Not that the production was offensive; however, neither was it’s confused clichés doing anybody any favors.

The automatic rifle-toting guards with their tacky camouflaged T-shirts in the opening would have you believe that you were at the barracks in front of a cigar factory in some random banana republic a la Venezuela, Nicaragua or Bolivia. That is until the cigar workers arrive – each one of them, incomprehensibly, dressed as if they were rejects from the movie “Mi Vida Loca.” Incomprehensibly because as somebody who is Hispanic himself and has lived a fair amount of time back in the old country, the sheer incongruity of these two images – Latin American location, chola fashion that really thrived only in the U.S. – beggared belief. But wait! Arriving in the third act was a band of leather-clad smugglers who seemed to have made their way into the hills above Caracas or wherever after wandering off the set of a 1930s-era gangster film. And speaking of leather-clad – what’s up with the only black performer in the cast having to assume the role of a hyper-sexual Mandingo? Just what was going on here?

If the production refused, or was simply unable, to provide the performance’s center of gravity, the musical cast, gratefully, took up the slack with aplomb.

At the center of it all you had the dazzling quartet of Babatunde Akinboboye (Escamillo), Aubrey Scarr (Miscaëla), Adam Croner (Don José), and Nora Graham-Smith (Carmen). And if Scarr’s heart-rending performance of Micaëla’s third act aria nearly stole the show, it was Graham-Smith’s jaded Carmen that ultimately remained in your mind long after the curtains came down. Her Carmen was a spiteful, even masochistic, creature bereft of compassion, bereft of the capacity to think beyond herself and her own pleasure, bereft of the ability to truly love; a miserable, icy planet spinning on its lonely axis along the edge of a distant solar system. Yet cracking from underneath that surface of psychological permafrost came a voice of refulgent power and carnal warmth.

POP Music Director Stephen Karr added his own stylish touch to the musical proceedings, playing the piano reduction of the score – the Highland Park Ebell was already stuffed with just the crew and singing cast, which made the inclusion of even a small chamber group out of the question – with great flexibility, rhythmic incisiveness and plenty of color.

In the end, the musical cast of POP’s “Carmen” was, as ever for the company, top-notch; their singing and acting able to transcend the production’s flaws.

Not that those flaws would have mattered or would have even been flaws to begin with had there been some kind of context serving as the production’s center of gravity – but there was none. Was this parody? Satire? Camp? Should you take the production at face value? Was a coherent, unifying vision for the production simply lacking? In the end, the audience was faced with a ramshackle string of tropes and stereotypes, unsure of what to make of it all because the production team itself seemed to be unsure.