What is CARMEN without Carmen? We almost find out in this collaborative Digital Stage performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the JUNK dance company. In this reimagining of Shchedrin’s interpretation of Bizet’s opera, the real star is the orchestra.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the baton of Yannick Nezet-Seguin, executes the piece with perfection and verve. The score is Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite and only calls for strings and percussion. Multiple xylophones aurally take center stage, and the many drums enliven the well-loved melodies of the original. This is, however, a ballet, and for long stretches we see no dancing.
Some of the blame for this goes to Covid. In any other time, the audience chooses where to direct its attention. The rest of the blame must go to the video editor, John Evin Groome. There is a split frame for a split second and it is never used again. He gives a full four minutes of screen time to the musicians during the scene when the anti-hero non-canonically takes his own life. There’s a character in the credits, Garcia the One-Eyed, who never even makes an appearance. In spite of these pitfalls, the production artfully uses the current restrictions to its advantage.
The lighting of Christopher Frey transforms backstage at the Kimmel Center into an unsympathetic Gypsy underworld. The claustrophobic location embodies the closed world of obsession and forces Brian Sanders’ choreography to contain itself. The dancers in mannequin-like masks (by JoAnn Jacobs), perform a dumbshow of what’s to come, stiff-limbed and circling on roller skates. The toreador, Lucas (Teddy Fatscher), impresses in what can only be described as a Flashbreakdance: spinning, tumbling, and posing on top of a small chair. All of the leads make love on top of a bull. The dancers spin from hanging ropes, giving the impression of swirling skirts and capes of flamenco dancers and toreadors while simultaneously foreshadowing Don Jose’s untimely end.
As Don Jose, Joe Rivera’s skills are sadly underutilized. He walks around or stands or kneels, shirtless, more like a mannequin than the mannequins. Kelly Trevlyn dances the part of the titular character, yet appears onscreen for less than ten minutes of the 50-minute production. In her love scene with Lucas, she is quickly replaced by Don Jose, watches for a minute, and then leaves. Later, when she hangs spinning around Don Jose in his motionless misery, she exhibits obvious grace and strength, but none of the movement is hers. We see her for a second after, draped on a blood-red velvet cloth, inexplicably dead, no curtain call.
This presentation left me with the feeling that I missed something. The sound is excellent, the video quality is HD, but nothing can replicate a live performance.
Playing March 4-11, 2021. Tickets at philorch.org