French-language grand opera becomes English-language musical theater with a decidedly American twist in Classic Stage Company’s reconceived, absorbing and intimate Off-Broadway revival of the rarely seen Carmen Jones, in which stage and screen actress Anika Noni Rose (a Tony winner for Caroline, or Change) gives an authoritative and sexy performance in the title role.
In 1943, lyricist and book-writer Oscar Hammerstein II had two hit shows on Broadway. One of them (Oklahoma!) revolutionized the American musical and ushered in its golden age. The other (Carmen Jones) was a curious, one-time experiment that was popular in its day, received a film version and is rarely seen today. English translations of famous operas have not historically caught on in New York with operagoers or theatergoers. Instead, the marriage of opera and theater is best seen in musicals like Rent (La Boheme), Miss Saigon (Madame Butterfly) and Elton John’s Aida (Verdi’s Aida). Likewise, the movie musical (and soon to be Broadway musical) Moulin Rouge! owes much to Verdi’s La Traviata.
In Carmen Jones, Hammerstein went beyond simply translating Bizet’s 1875 French opera Carmen into English. He reset the opera from 19th-century Seville to the American South circa World War II and featured an all-black cast. The gypsy Carmen became Carmen Jones, a parachute factory worker. The corporal Don Jose became Joe (Clifton Duncan), an aspiring military aviator. The toreador Escamillo became Husky Miller (David Aron Damane), a champion boxer. And the village maiden Micaela became Cindy Lou (Lindsay Roberts), innocent girl next door. While Hammerstein’s slang-style lyrics have not aged especially well (i.e. “Dere’s a Café on de Corner,” “Whizzin’ Away Along de Track”), Carmen Jones remains an unusual and fascinating artifact.
As it happens, I have seen Carmen Jones before. Vanessa Williams starred in a gala benefit concert production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 2003. I was a college freshman at the time at George Washington University and rather randomly scored a complimentary ticket. Since I had never attended an opera before, Carmen Jones marked my first exposure to Carmen. In recent years, I have been expecting Carmen Jones to turn up at City Center with a full orchestra and chorus as part of the Encores! series – and perhaps it will sooner or later.
Director John Doyle (who is now artistic director of Classic Stage Company) brings a minimalist approach to virtually everything he touches, which can work exceedingly well (The Color Purple, Allegro), somewhat well (Sweeney Todd, Company), or not well at all (Pacific Overtures, Peter Grimes). Carmen Jones represents Doyle’s best work to date after The Color Purple. He has scaled down musically (a six-piece orchestra), visually (an empty, in-the-round space) and textually (running 100 minutes without an intermission). If the opera’s blockbuster moments feel underpowered, the arias and two-character scenes take on extended potency in this focused environment, in which intermissions have been removed and the action simply flows along. The 10-member ensemble cast is vocally spotless. Also part of the creative team is the celebrated modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones, who provides a few bits of ritualized movement.
Speaking as someone who loves musical theater but has always felt removed from opera, I think that presenting more English-language translations would certainly attract more interest in the opera from a lot of people. While Carmen Jones may technically be an adaptation of Carmen, I felt closer to Carmen at Carmen Jones than I ever did at the Metropolitan Opera. With the recent unfortunate demise of New York City Opera, there is an opportunity for a new opera company to emerge as the alternative to the Met. Perhaps one will emerge that treats opera as simple, direct, effective musical theater.