Review: Carmen by Savannah VOICE Festival

Let me start my review of Savannah VOICE Festivals' production of Bizet's beloved Carmen by saying "Wow!" What a rare and exceptional treat to see this production with performers of this high caliber in the intimate, theater-in-the-round setting of the Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church sanctuary -turned concert hall.

Now down to nuts and bolts. The venue is a pleasant surprise for the new-comer; the acoustics are promising; the seats substantial and comfortable. The program notes have the full libretto in English so just before the lights dimmed we were confident in our understanding of this exciting and tragic story.

"Let this Carmen wash over you" were the Voice Festival's Director, Sherrill Milnes' quieting words.

And off we go: Carmen, that sexually charged 19th century opera by Bizet. Weakness of the flesh, love, regret, catfights! But wait, first...

"The rules of Fight Club," Carmen explains before the start of this wonderful opera and with that it is meant for us to understand that this version of Carmen is a modern take on this 19th century story, costumes and set executed in commensurate minimalism.

"This was an idea born out of necessity", the director explained to us during the question and answer session, this whole production having been formed in the space of 12 days on a shoestring budget.

The lights dim and, what a pleasure it is to hear that familiar cadence by Bizet, something we've heard our whole lives but still unbelievably beautiful and fresh from the mouth of Jennifer Johnson Cano in the title role, who sings and projects seemingly without effort.

Cano's voice easily fills the space with sound, high to low, soft to loud, conspiratorial to profound. The voice and orchestra (which totals a simple piano accompaniment masterfully performed by Christopher Cano) in perfect modulation and timing together. Fresh voiced Micaela (Phoenix Gayles) gives a stunning performance, the perfect juxtaposition to Carmen's deeper notes.

No need to placate the modern audience with razzle and dazzle in costume and sets, like blind men we sit undistracted, our ears attuned so much better.

But maybe not...A few poofy shirts and gold necklaces blushing in the spotlights would have been welcome.

Some distractions that cropped up in the intimate venue where the audience is just feet from the performers: Jose (Samuel Levine) is wearing a wedding ring? The libretto calls for bangles of copper and silver but Carmen has a fake tattoo and a Guns and Roses T-shirt?

The rope, the rope? It symbolically and technically did the job of a truckload of props at first, but it turned hollow and gimmicky as the pieced progressed.

Cano stuck to the Fight Club contestant character with admirable focus, but I would have liked Carmen to be at least a little more Carmen, the gypsy priestess/seductress. A little more charm, a little less combativeness. Just so we really get what the fuss was all about.

And what's up with Jose's leather high rise pants and jacket in ACT III? The bare ankles and loafers at audience eye-level distracted from what was otherwise a fantastic performance.

Escamillo (Marco Nistico) projected in a near-commanding voice, but let's just say the costuming, or lack thereof, did little to add life to this unfortunately dull character.

That being said, this creative take on Carmen was well worth the (fairly hefty) ticket price and I thank the Voice Festival for bringing it to Savannah. I enjoyed the minimalism and especially the staging and intimacy of the venue.

If it's viscous voice and sweet piano delivered with perfect timing you want, than this is the kind of productions for you. If you were expecting seductive vixens with low slung decolletages and Matadors with broad shoulders, plan a trip to the Met.