Carmen Jones (Old Vic)
Times Literary Supplement, Apr. 1991
Boy loses girl, girl loses life; that's showbiz. But is it Bizet? Oscar Hammerstein, that undervalued (though anything but unsung) writer of words for and to music, aimed to make Carmen accessible to a mass musical public by transposing its libretto into the modern idiom and ambience of black American society in the Second World War. But now this update in its turn has become just as old and dated as "Ol"' and "Dat" and such-like lingo; and a lot is lost in the process. The original cigarette factory was just the right setting for a Gitane-allumeuse. Nothing in Hammerstein's adaptation is half so aptly symbolic; and his own relocations are further dislocated in this production. Thus his Chicago gymnasium is converted into a sumptuous mansion, with further loss of realism and immediacy, despite the visual delights of Bruno Santini's designs.
But the new lyrics and dialogue remain vivid because of their perfect match with the melodies and the drama; the cast contains a brilliant galaxy of singing and dancing stars; and the press-night performance received a standing ovation. It will seem churlish to cavil. Yet the show could and should have been much better still. In places, the musical character-drawing that was Bizet's forte is all but obliterated by fortissimo. The hero, Joe (formerly Don José), is no mere degenerate who whips out his knife whenever his manhood is maligned; otherwise the plot itself lacks point. We need to hear in the music what Carmen sees in him. But he has no real chance to explain how tenderly he dotes on his old mother, or a faded flower, like the ideal lover he is. Just let Damon Evans (or Michael Austin, on alternate nights) linger ever his melodies; gave the tenor his head-notes, as in the sound-truck of the fine Otto Preminger film, and new dimensions of meaning and emotion will be added.
The well-produced tones of Karen Parks also need more breathing-space before the character of Cindy Lou can be brought fully to life. Whenever the tempo sounds over-excited and the scoring over-saxed, the hometown sweetheart is misrepresented as fast and brassy. That musical characterization admittedly applies more aptly to the magnificent Carmen impersonation of Wilhelminia Fernandez (who will be alternating with Sharon Benson). Her combined Eve and serpent offer the genesis of genuine drama; but she too needs more relaxation before she can display her sinuously seductive wiles to full effect. The insistent hanging and blaring of the band can all too easily rob these three key roles of that operatic dignity and significance which Hammerstein strove so hard to communicate to the widest possible public.
In other contexts, though, the basic Bizet beat works well enough, especially in the powerful punch generated for and by Gregg Baker as Husky Miller the prizefighter (néeEscamillo the bullfighter) whose prodigious physical presence is further enhanced by real vocal authority. Simon Callow's direction is predictably sprightly and inventive; so is the choreography of Stuart Hops. Stage and pit pulsate with energy and excitement; and a modern musical with memorable melodies, however reductively arranged, must be worth hearing. So on balance the best advice is to forget the reservations and make the bookings.