A Unique Twist on A Classic

Carmen Comes to The Victoria Theatre

By Eric Street

The Dayton Opera season sweeps to a dramatic close with four performances of The Tragedy of Carmen, a streamlined, contemporary turn on Bizet’s perennial audience favorite.  Dayton’s Victoria Theatre provides an intimate setting for the May 17 thru 20 performances. This version, sung in English and adapted by English stage producer Peter Brook, “is unlike any Carmen you have seen,” says Dayton Opera’s General and Artistic Director Tom Bankston. “The cast is comprised of four singing and three speaking parts. The orchestra is scaled back to 15-pieces, the libretto is in English, in a translation by famed Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick.”

Hailed by some critics as a “revelation,” the Peter Brook adaptation stirred lively debate when it opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York.  Stage Director Gary Briggle, remembered by Dayton audiences for his zesty direction of Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, Barber of Seville and Porgy and Bess, explains that Brook “believes Bizet’s original conception of Prosper Merimee’s novella Carmen was distorted by the demands of the Opera Comique, including a children’s chorus and big spectacle.”

Briggle explainst that Brook’s adaptation “is a compelling, fascinating, gripping deconstruction to get back to the original conception Bizet got from the novella.  The terrible betrayal by the Opera Comique was heightened when the producers further dishonored Bizet’s memory by turning the dialogue into recitative.  In fact, the Carmen we know is not the Carmen Bizet intended us to see. This production helps the audience confront the drama as originally conceived.”

When asked what sets this adaptation apart, Briggle explains, “It is in every way different from the expectations of audience members who have seen the traditional Carmen.  It has a fifteen-piece orchestra, it is in English, some of the music is reordered and it adds characters from the novella omitted from the opera.”

By all accounts, the cast is talented.  “Tom Bankston has found a quartet of young artists in their late 20s with a fearlessness to take huge risks, to explore the material in unprecedented ways,” says Briggle.  “We’re discussing every move together.  I can’t tell you how inspiring this is — of course, they sing beautifully, but they’re also fit, they act, they move!”

The main cast will be accompanied by three actors from the Human Race Theatre who emphasize the non-linear way of telling the story. “I’ve directed the traditional Carmen three times, so for me the challenge was overcoming the preconceptions. Many of Brook’s ideas grow out of Bertolt Brecht.  One of these is the alienation effect.  The audience doesn’t just sit back and let it wash over them, but intellectually participates,” says Briggle.

Much of the orchestration is gone. The elaborate scenery is gone.  Projections will have little to do with location, but everything has to do with the emotional and psychological frame of reference, using color, shape and iconic forms rather than linear visual backdrops.

“I’m very excited about it,” says Briggle. “It’s just ninety minutes long without intermission, which allows us to examine fully every single moment.  It’s set in 1935 Spain, so the costuming doesn’t allow the audience to go back to the spit curls and castanets of the traditional Carmen.”

The cast is splendid and is exploring the work in new and fascinating ways.  It’s a true collaboration between the singers and all the artists, which compels participants to be creative in ways not always possible in standard productions.  For example, for many Carmens the sets and costumes may have been intended for other productions.  This is a production that is liberated from all of that.

“It puts a tremendous responsibility upon all of us,” notes Briggle. “If we are true to Brook, the responsibility logically falls upon the singer-actors rather than the director.  I allow them to take risks and keep everyone’s eye on the destination.  It’s all about the process.”

The cast is comprised of the four members of Dayton Opera’s Artists in Residence —mezzo Julia Mintzer as Carmen, tenor Matias Mariani as Don Jose, soprano Jennifer Cherest as Micaela and baritone Patrick McNally as Escamillo. Human Race Theatre actors Jamie Cordes, Tim Lile and Alan Bomar Jones perform the speaking roles of Zuniga, Lillas Pastia and Garcia.

Jeffrey Powell, Dayton Opera chorus master and conductor of The Daughter of the Regiment will conduct members of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. Set design is by Gary Briggle and John Rensel, with costumes by D. Barlett Blair and make-up by Thomas Venditelli.

(Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 17, 18 and 19 at 8p.m. and

Sunday, May 20 at 3p.m. in the Victoria Theatre. For tickets call Ticket Center Stage 228-3630. $15 Tweet Seats are available at all performances. Come early! An hour before each performance, Stage Director Gary Briggs speaks about the production. After the performance, join Dayton Opera on the balcony level for a Wine Tasting. Enjoy Veleta Wines from Granada, Spain, along with a sampling of their imported foods for $15. For tickets go to www.daytonopera.org, then click on Veleta Wine Tasting.)

Reach DCP freelance writer Eric Street at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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