Last night LooseTEA Theatre presented a work-in-progress version of their reimagined Carmen. Director and librettist Alaina Viau promised a “a radically envisioned” Carmen and she wasn’t kidding. Apart from the fact that Ricardo (Escamilio) and John Anderson (Don José) are rivals for Carmen’s affections and there’s a woman, Michaela, with a prior attachment to John and, of course, that John kills Carmen there’s not a whole lot left of Mérimée’s story. We are in Toronto. John is a vet suffering from PTSD who has left his wife (Michaela) and kids. Carmen manages a bar but is about to open her own place with the help of investment banker Ricardo. She comes across as an everyday working girl rather than someone whose life is a serial process of picking up and discarding men. Episodes that fit the big numbers of the score are quite cleverly crafted together to weave a narrative that works but rather relies on John’s PTSD to explain the two murders. Woven into the opera are videos by Darren Bryant that contain some of the characters’ back stories. Music is a mix of a conventional keyboard reduction played by Natasha Fransblow and live electronics from sound artist SlowPitchSound. The use of electronics brings a grittiness that feels like an essential way of undermining the “prettiness” of the score. Running around 55 minutes all told it feels a bit episodic and I hope (and expect) that the final version will seem more continuous. Certainly there’s already more than just the basis for a very interesting piece of music theatre.
At the heart of the performance is Erica Iris in the title role. I think she has what one would want in any Carmen in any version. Her voice is a rich sultry mezzo and her acting is a mix of flirtatious, sultry, seductive and dismissive. She certainly works for this version. Ryan Harper’s John Anderson is well sung but perhaps not yet fully characterized (there were only two rehearsals). The sense of him being right on the edge, barely in control, comes and goes. When it’s there it’s powerful. Andrey Andreychuk’s Ricardo is quite straightforward and very loud (Studio 120 where all this took place is tiny!). Again the singing is great and the “Investor’s Song” is genuinely funny. I think this is a character that needs to be developed more though. Beth Hagerman’s Michaela had me in two minds. It certainly wasn’t played or sung as the sweet village girl of the original and that was reflected in singing that, at first, struck me as strident. On the other hand this is a mother with two kids who has been deserted by a violent and angry husband. Maybe her approach is exactly right?
One thing I am sure about is that it’s much harder to get this transladaptation thing right with a drama/tragedy than with a comedy. One can’t fall back on cute jokes when the inspiration falters. It has to be tightly dramatic and consistent of mood. That’s a tough thing to do and if a work-in-progress has some dramatic lacunae I don’t think we should be too worried. I really hope that Alaina gets the chance to fully flesh this beast out. It should be fascinating.