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la-tragedie-de-carmen.jpgFor those of us who are truly passionate aficionados of all things theatrically innovative, Peter Brook is a god (I worshipped at his sacred altar, for one, last year, when he brought his Beckett masterpiece, Fragments, to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre).  So I was as giddy and inchoate as Kara DioGuardi (ok, enough American Idol references already, since Kris Allen made it to the final two, yay!) on my way to see Chicago Opera Theater‘s production of Brook’s stripped-down, minimalist, polarizing-for-its-time (the early 1980s) version of Bizet’s glorious Carmen, called La Tragedie de Carmen.  Sitting at my seat at the Harris Theatre, waiting for the famous “Prelude” to begin, my heart was palpitating, my brow was breaking out in sweat beads, my endorphins were having a rock and roll jam session, and then…oh, there was no “Prelude”.  OK, now (although the “Prelude” came later on in the show as, gasp, recorded music). COT had, as expected, produced a polished, technically proficient, stunningly sung show.  I thought the barely-there set of a huge brick wall and a sand pit, as well as the expressionistic lighting design, were effective in heightening the point that this was not going to be your grandmother’s grand, outsized Carmen.  I thought the chamber orchestra, now only comprised of 15 musicians, still brought vivid, lush life to Bizet’s enveloping melodies.  As I have come to expect with COT, the singing was just this side of spectacular, with Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen and, especially, Noah Stewart as Don Jose giving nuanced musical performances.  But I had a problem with Brook’s reconceptualization. To be honest, I really didn’t buy into it.  If the point of La Tragedie de Carmen was ultimately to strip away the grandiose baggage of centuries of operatic over-the-top-ness and focus on the relationships in the story, then I didn’t really think it succeeded.  The 80 minute running time and the choppy scene sequences never gave me a chance to fully understand and invest in the characters’ motivations, attractions, and decisions.  One minute Carmen was a smoldering object of lust chained to a chair or suggestively touching a microphone, the next she was a broken down, emotionally battered woman, widowed twice over (first by the death of her husband, Garcia, and then by that of her true love, Escamillo, which, by the way, I didn’t understand how that came to be).  Where were the transitions?  the clearly-depicted character arcs?  the humanity that was supposed to shine through with the operatic trappings being removed? Unfortunately, as heretical as it may sounds, Brook’s minimalist, auterist, re-ordered version may have been radical and unheard of, scandalous even, to the most rabid cultural purists, in the early 1980s but today, in 2009, it just feels….it kills me to say this, dated.  For a theatergoer like me who’s seen a Richard III reconceptualized as a modern day Arab political treatise, or seen A Doll’s House performed with 3 feet tall men and 6 feet tall women and a mystifying coda with bald puppets, or a Misanthrope with a radically altered structure set in modern day New York, reinventions of classics are not new, in fact, they’re almost to be expected.  So seeing a different interpretation of Carmen isn’t foreign to me, what’s strange, and ultimately disappointing, is that the revision, by a legendary theater director at that, wasn’t engaging, memorable, or timeless.  The last performance of La Tragedie de Carmen is on Friday, May 15, 7:30 pm at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205. E. Randolph St.

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