IN Series’ cabaret “Carmen” a travesty in more ways than one

Sun Jan 05, 2020 at 12:26 pm
Cara Schaefer and Kyle Dunn in Le Cabaret de Carmen, presented by IN Series at Source Theatre. Photo: RX Loft.

If you are seeking a performance of Bizet’s Carmen, then Le Cabaret de Carmen at the IN Series is not for you. 

Timothy Nelson, in his second season at the organization’s helm, is revisiting his heavy-handed reduction of the opera, first presented by American Opera Theater in Baltimore over a decade ago. With the score slashed in half, along with some musical tweaks and a mostly new cast, this strange and violent production opened Saturday night at Source Theatre.

On the other hand, if you have always wondered what it would be like to see Carmen played as a drag queen, you came to the right place. The conceit is that Bizet’s signature arias are campy numbers performed in the louche nightclub run by Madame Pastia. The star act is the “femme-ish fatale La Carmen,” an introduction accompanied by the suggestive dangle of a finger between the legs, the first of the evening’s many cringe-worthy would-be jokes.

Taking on this surprise trouser role is mezzo-soprano Cara Schaefer, who all but chewed the scenery to plumb the character’s tortured depths. Although she had the vocal power and range to make an affecting Carmen, Schaefer over-exploited the male resonance of her chest range to sell the character’s gender ambiguity. By the end of the 90-minute evening this low belting had already taken a toll on her voice.

Tenor Brian Arreola barked his way through the violent, confused role of Jose, the soldier finding himself attracted to this spectacle. He had a surprisingly sympathetic moment in the character’s star turn, “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” for which he was suddenly thrust into a spotlight and handed a piece of sheet music. The perilous ending of the piece, that pianissimo ascent to a high B-flat, proved a struggle that only increased the sense of Jose’s vulnerability.

Much-needed comic relief came in the hammy performance of Alex Alburqueque’s Escamillo, a send-up of every smarmy, marginally talented Las Vegas-style act ever seen or imagined. With a cheesy smile and Elvis Presley-like tics, he transformed the toreador’s trademark machismo into sebaceous self-parody.

The vocal highlights came in the innocent soprano of Kelly Curtin’s Micaëla, the country girl who follows Jose into the big city’s depravity. Nelson has admitted owing a debt of inspiration to Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen, from 1981. That includes Micaëla’s catfight with Carmen over Jose, set to the music of the scuffle between the cigar girls.

Lydia Gladstone reprises her brazen Madame Pastia, who not only runs the cabaret but prostitutes Carmen on the side. Actor Kyle Dunn takes over the role of the leather-clad Host, created by Nelson himself, who banters with the audience in a mixture of French and English. The evening’s most satisfying dramatic moments came in watching this character, who at one point violently molests Carmen, be killed by Jose, not once but twice.

The set, designed in lurid red and black by Jonathan Dahm Robertson, featured a lipsticked face painted on the backdrop. Some audience members sat at tables in the small stage space, interacting occasionally with the singers. The murder of Carmen occurred in her dressing room, with Schaefer having removed her wig.

The aim behind such an adaptation is to add something to the work, but it was not clear what facet Nelson hoped to bring out except shock value. By eliminating the chorus, he did away with some of the opera’s best music. One small benefit was cellist Maxfield Wollam-Fisher’s tango-infused trio arrangement of the score, led from the piano by Emily Baltzer and featuring the soulful bandoneón of Heyni Solera.

Nelson cited the noir-inspired films of Pedro Almodóvar, often featuring people at the margins of sexual identity with tender care, as an influence. In particular, Bad Education was in the background, with its violent transsexual performer angry about having been molested by a Catholic priest as a boy. If the goal was to elicit sympathy for transgender people, Le Cabaret de Carmen fails miserably.

Le Cabaret de Carmen runs through January 19.

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