Review: “La tragédie de Carmen”

Where: The Den Theater, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through April 13
Web: cubeensemble.com

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The CUBE Ensemble was founded in 1987 by composer and oboist Patricia Morehead. Along with Philip Morehead, her husband of more than 50 years, and other talented local composers and musicians, for nearly three decades CUBE offered numerous new music concerts with bite. You never knew what to expect and the results could be stimulating, funky, bizarre, beautiful, but always ear opening.

CUBE has turned over a new leaf, and now has a new set of young organizers. Their mission statement is mushy — so expansive it covers doing any kind of music, theater or dance performances anywhere for anybody. It is now a collaborative arts ensemble with the goal of “championing and commissioning new work and remounting classics with an innovative contemporary lens.”

Too bad that championing doesn’t extend to giving credit where credit is due. Friday was the opening night of CUBE’s “La tragédie de Carmen” and while the ensemble changed it up some, it was the famous — and radical — adaptation of Bizet’s opera created by Peter Brook, Marius Constant and Jean-Claude Carrière. While CUBE’s calendar webpage still includes a graphic containing Brook’s name, the program and the press release nowhere acknowledge Brook, Constant or Carrière.

Via e-mail the morning following the first performance, I asked why this was. Hope Littwin, the new artistic director replied: “While working on this piece we made several very major cuts and reworked different sections of the music to be more inline (sic) with our vision. Because we edited and reworked the score so much it was suggested by several sources that it was no longer appropriate to mention either Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carriere or Marius Constant as we had made too many changes and were far enough from their adaptations to justify their inclusion.”

This seems very strange to me. When novels are made into films, it is frequently the case that just these sorts of deep cuts and significant changes are made, but film makers still credit their source material. The CUBE production is clearly a version of that created by Brook and his collaborators, including the many deviations from the Bizet original (which have annoyed opera purists since its introduction in the 1980s), it used the Constant piano score, and even opened with precisely the same visual effect as Brook’s DVD. I asked, in two separate e-mails, if mounting the Brook-Constant-Carrière version required authorization from the copyright holders and if CUBE had such an arrangement. These questions, as of press time, remain unanswered.

The idea that you can evade your ethical responsibility to acknowledge the artistic contributions of others as well as ignore your possible legal duties to the holder of the copyright by the expedient of altering the work is a strange notion indeed, and one which turns the noble idea of collaboration on its head by reducing respect for and severing the connection to the creators of artistic work.

Now to the production itself. It is advertised as 90 minutes, but this is wildly inaccurate. It is only 59 minutes, and even so, the performance scheduled for 7:30 p.m. didn’t end until shortly before 9 p.m. because it started 17 minutes late. It takes place in one of the black box theaters at The Den, and the only set dressing is what appears to be a large pile of lumber on stage right taking up a goodly part of the performance space. Strangely, this is never used by the singers, nor do they even appear to glance at it. Instead, they have to move about in a very tight space, which they manage to do very effectively.

Reshmi Hazra’s stage direction yields lots of daggers drawn, loud slaps and nasty punches, plus plenty of body contact during Carmen’s sexcapades, and it succeeds at the Jerry Springer level. It is left to the music alone to convey the deeper psychological content.

Mezzo-soprano Hope Littwin sings the title with vigor but was hampered by intonation problems, perhaps the result of opening night jitters, and her very noticeable breathing within phrases is distracting. She is an attractive Carmen with confident movements (and the Tarot cards poking out of her camisole is a nice touch), yet her lovely face was generally placid in expression and she has trouble finding this gypsy’s wild fire.

Tenor Camilo Rasquin’s Don Jose is soft and unclearly defined in the beginning, but by the end he conveys the hungry desperation of a multiple-murderer. (He kills more than once in the Brook version, as opposed to Bizet’s.)

Brad Jungwirth is a confident and engaging Escamillo. His strong bass-baritone is complemented with a portrayal infused with all the strutting masculinity of a toreador. Brook has him die in the bull ring, but as there is no such venue in this outing, he apparently gets gored under an exit sign, near a door not visible to the audience, and then staggers back into the performance space to die.

Micaëla is given a milkmaid air by soprano Johanna Moffitt, who sings with conviction even if some delicacy is lost. The extraordinarily brief program notes do not even mention this character, so if you don’t know “Carmen,” read up before you attend or you will be baffled.

Allison Cook takes on the three spoken roles and does a marvelous job, in spite of the fact that all these characters are men and Cook is not. Her swagger is engaging, her voice is luscious and she can wear an eye patch without eliciting giggles.

Those who have been fans of CUBE’s adventurous forays into the cutting edge of classical music will mourn the loss of a new music presenter, as the new CUBE has no classical music on the horizon. At the post-performance reception, I asked Kroydell Galima, the new executive director, about new music enthusiasts leaving the CUBE fold. He was forthright, saying “they can take it or they can leave it.”

“La tragédie de Carmen” is performed in French without supertitles and continues through April 13.