When the English theater director Peter Brook took hold of Bizet’s beloved opera “Carmen” 35 years ago, jettisoning half the music, altering the plot and reducing the cast of dozens to a core ensemble of four singers, he drew considerable criticism and was labeled by some a cultural butcher.
Nowadays “The Tragedy of Carmen,” as Brook called the work he created, is regarded as something of a classic, a biting distillation of the sexual power struggles and violent relationships at the heart of Bizet’s turbulent masterpiece.
As such, it made a shrewd choice for the relaunch of Skylark Opera Theatre, a company that has spent the past year on furlough, reconsidering its options in the wake of a potentially ruinous financial crisis.
On the evidence of Friday evening’s performance of “The Tragedy of Carmen” at the Midpointe Event Center in St. Paul, Skylark’s welcome reboot has resulted in a leaner, edgier type of company.
Much of the credit for the artistic success of this “Carmen” production goes to Robert Neu, a regular collaborator with Skylark in recent years and its new artistic director.
Neu located the action in a narrow alley setting, the audience seated to either side of the singers. Within this deliberately constricted area — “Carmen” is one of the most emotionally claustrophobic of operas — the physical impact of the drama was heightened, as fights with switchblades and a gun unraveled an arm’s length away from front-row spectators.
As the title character, Seattle-born soprano Tess Altiveros was, predictably, a provocative presence in black leathers and slinky knee boots. Crucially, Altiveros avoided overacting, allowing her natural sensuality and the art of gradual insinuation to do the talking. Some of her quiet singing was difficult to decipher, but she unleashed the higher notes with passionate, thrilling impact.
As Carmen’s love-struck nemesis Don José, tenor Laurent Kuehnl presented a powerful study in slow-burn obsession. Like Altiveros, he carefully reined in the temptation to let the explosive emotions of the piece turn hammy and melodramatic. Kuehnl’s noble, heartfelt account of the beautiful “Flower Song” was a highlight, with a hushed, not hooted B-flat at the conclusion.
Strong support was lent by Jennifer Baldwin Peden’s feistier-than-average Micaëla, and Jennifer Eckes’ bustling, castanet-clicking turn as innkeeper Lillas Pastia.
Actor Kevin Klein brought focused intensity to the spoken parts of Lt. Zuniga and Carmen’s husband, Garcia, while baritone John Allen Nelson sang Escamillo’s famous “Toreador Song” rousingly, in a splendidly blingy bullfighter’s jacket.
Pulling the show together was Neu’s intelligent, psychologically probing direction, every movement seemingly linked to some tremor of inner emotion in the characters. A piano trio led by Barbara Brooks provided vivid musical accompaniment.
“The Tragedy of Carmen” runs 80 minutes without an intermission and is a punchy, visceral piece of music theater. It marks a triumphant, envelope-pushing comeback for the Skylark Music Theatre from its recent near-death experience.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.