A condensed version of George Bizet’s masterpiece, Peter Brook’s La Tragedie de Carmen, is just that. The idea is that by reducing the original opera to its pillars — four singers and the most famous music — and cutting it to around 90 minutes, more companies and schools would perform it. But doing away with the arches those pillars support blunts the majesty of the original. Yes, this sounds snobbish — but thankfully a one-night-only Chautauqua Opera Company production directed by Chia Patino on July 20 at Norton Hall offered plenty of excellence to focus on.
The set by Brian Ruggaber was a model of economy, providing multiple stages, yet not looking cramped. A reoccurring figure shrouded in black slunk across the stage — the specter of fate that dominates the superstitious Carmen’s psyche. This, along with the jump-cut-like changes in lighting by designer Michael Baumgarten, brought meaning at key moments. Conductor Steven Osgood kept his tiny band drawn from the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in sync with the singers despite being hidden behind the set. Costumes (Cristine Patrick and Martha Ruskai) were splendid and the occasional piped-in music and radio (Graham Riggle) was well balanced.
What about the singers, you ask? Monique Galvao did not fall into the trap of overselling the many vocal shifts of Carmen. Bizet does that for you. She sang with a sultry tone throughout, holding her full volume for crucial plot points. Louis Tiemann also paced his performance as Don José, slowly unwrapping his burnished timbre in the upper ranges as the character emotionally devolved. As the bullfighter Escamillo, Tshilidzi Ndou (dressed to the nines) displayed excellent diction despite a huge, mahogany-toned voice. Lili Juyeon Yoo, delightful as Micaela, effortlessly scaled the wide-ranging part, her voice an attractive, almost contradictory mix of lightness and depth. As always, it will be fun to chart the careers of these Young Artists — perhaps headlining the real McCoy someday.
Andrew Druckenbrod is a former classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He studied musicology at the University of Minnesota and is an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh.