Carmen the Gypsy at Opera Theater SummerFest | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Carmen the Gypsy at Opera Theater SummerFest

This is a lean, mean version that gets right to the point

Kara Cornell in Carmen the Gypsy, at SummerFest
Kara Cornell in Carmen the Gypsy, at SummerFest

Some people I know spend a lot of time thinking about how to keep theater relevant in the new millennium. That’s kid stuff compared to opera. Opera Theater of Pittsburgh gives it a try by remounting its 2012 Carmen the Gypsy.

This is a lean, mean version of the famous work by Georges Bizet: a cast of 11, an orchestra of eight, a minimal set and a production that gets right to the point. The title character is a hard-bitten woman who drives men insane with desire; her latest conquest the soldier Don José. Their relationship is the embodiment of “toxic” and, well, it’s opera, so some people are going to end up dead.

This version has a bit of history. In 1984, British superstar director Peter Brook created an 80-minute theater piece called La Tragedie de Carmen. Five months into the Broadway run, he had lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) write an English translation that played on alternating nights. And that’s what Opera Theater is presenting at various venues around town as part of its annual SummerFest. This Carmen is touring to some off-beat locales: a hookah bar, an oriental-rug showroom, a horse barn and a regular (i.e. boring) theater. Contact the company for exact info.

I’m not what you’d call an opera fan, but I enjoyed much of this performance; if I’m seeing Carmen, this is most definitely the version I want. Brook and Opera Theater director Jonathan Eaton have stripped away all that overripe, extravagant folderol, which can overwhelm a story (never mind the audience). Here, the focus on the performers is unobstructed.

Kara Cornell and James Flora are the self-destructive Carmen and Don José, and both sing with rich, beautiful voices. Soprano Katie Manukyan’s got some top notes that raise the roof as Micaëla, and Christopher Scott plays toreador Escamillo like the rock star he is. Conductor Robert Frankenberry, who along with Eaton created a new orchestration, draws from the orchestra a whole host of musical colors and moods.

It does get a bit “operatic” toward the end — overblown emotions and ludicrous actions — but those few moments hardly detract from the rest of this fresh and vibrant evening.