(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
It’s fun, in theory, to watch familiar things take on a new shape. But in practice, it’s nerve wracking if the new format doesn’t seem to embody the qualities you admired in the original.
We’re more likely to accept a revision to the original once it no longer gives us the same pleasure it once did. The staging of an opera is maybe too rare an event to wear out its welcome, and yet the form itself is so familiar that any new iteration is worth looking at.
Enter “Cabaret De Carmen,” an independent effort to bring an abridged version of Bizet’s opera into the blank slate of a bar venue, the North Door in East Austin.
On Friday “Carmen” found an ideal setting here, adding a bar-within-the bar dimension. And by the same token, the action is restricted to the bar, not ranging with a variety of sets and locations.
Concentrating a complex opera into the one location makes for a tightened storyline, and the workarounds by stage director Rebecca Herman and producer and lead, Liz Cass make for a very clear story that could be easily understood for everyone. This shortened “Carmen” was originally conceived by GLOW Lyric Theatre in South Carolina.
What was most interesting in this distilled version was the emphasis on the soldier, Don Jose’s struggle with PTSD. This concept plays in the original of course, but in this shortened version (and the fact that the production was to benefit Safe Place and Veterans’ Guitar Project) Jose’s unsteadiness is underlined even further.
So, opera in close proximity, you ask? It’s instantly intimate. Gestures and facial movements are up close and the singers are in full voice (at least as full as I’ve ever experienced from close range), which gives them a raw power. We’re treated to ‘the hits here; “Habanera” and the Toreador, and the musical chairs dating situation brings out the comedy.
Cass as Carmen was seductive in voice and callous in demeanor. Hugo Vera as Jose belted out a high tenor and excelled in softer, sweeter vocal sections, though some of his French seemed a little uncertain. Ultimately he mined his character’s sympathies: adoring at first but then marking a darker course.
Julia Taylor as waitress Micaela has a gift of that comic look, and played it perfectly. She too had some evocative singing in the most delicate sections.
Some advantages of a mini opera-in-a-bar are also its drawbacks. It takes some imagination to accept that an orchestra has morphed into a keyboard. And a full piano, even an upright would have been a welcome replacement to the synthesizer.
But you do adjust, and focus on the voices, all of which are, you’d have to assume, way more powerful than the North Door’s ever seen.
Ultimately it’s a nice vibe. This is the second bar opera production Cass and company have put on, and there’s a lot to celebrate here. Some will be relieved to hear that these evenings are quite short — an hour and a half breezes by — but despite missing the spectacle of a major opera, its costumes and its scenic festival, perhaps this is a way to bring more art to more people.