BY ELYSE TREVERS
Most people recognize the strains of the “Toreador Song” and “Habanera” from Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” Perhaps, like me, you don’t totally understand the lyrics but that adds to the power of the opera. Instead of focusing on the words, we can fully appreciate the music and beautiful voices.
In 1943, noted lyricist Oscar Hammerstein adapted the classic 1875 opera into “Carmen Jones”, a musical in English.
Set in the South during World War II, the story involves Carmen, a parachute factory worker, and the men she’s captivated. Although Carmen can have almost any man she wants, she sets her sights on Joe, a soldier who seems disinterested. Despite his understanding with Cindy Lou, a girl from his hometown, Joe quickly succumbs to Carmen’s wiles. He jealously attacks a superior officer and then deserts his post to flee with her to Chicago. Quickly bored with him and now attracted to a famous prizefighter, Carmen tries to break up with Joe. In the final moments of the story, Joe kills her, knowing that he will undoubtedly die for his crime.
As Carmen, Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose (“Caroline, or Change”, “The Good Wife”) is a revelation. Her powerful soprano voice is thrilling and her every move is sensuous, suggesting sexiness with every pose and glance. She goes from fiery to glacial. Rose’s Carmen is confident and exciting. Portraying Joe, Clifton Duncan starts slowly but as he is overwhelmed by passion, becomes stronger. The rest of the cast is powerful vocally, particularly Soara-Joye Ross as Frankie featured in “Beat Out Dat Rhythm On A Drum” with a dance choreographed by Bill T. Jones.
As with most CSC productions, the staging is spare. In fact, there’s little scenery except for several munitions boxes moved about. In the second half of the musical, the cast hoists a parachute to the ceiling to suggest a Chicago country club.
Directed by John Doyle, the musical at the Classic Stage Company is the first major New York revival of Carmen Jones since its debut 75 years ago. “Carmen Jones” features an all African-American cast.
The music is familiar, but sometimes Hammerstein’s lyrics leave something to be desired. The famous Toreador song is now sung by David Aron Damane, as the prizefighter Husky Miller explaining his success in the boxing ring, “Stan’ Up An’ Fight”. Carman sings “Dat’s Love” to the melody of “Habanera.” (“I tol’ you truly if I love you dat’s de end of you.”) At times the words seem inane. When Joe and Cindy Lou see each other after a long separation, they sing of their attraction to one another, “You Talk Just Like My Maw.”
I’m not sure how true opera lovers feel about it, but I found the English to be a distraction and occasionally even silly. But when the show opened, it ran for over 500 performances, so obviously everyone didn’t feel the same way.