Up and down

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 18, 2006

CARMEN: Karine Seneca and Carlos Molina need more emotional direction.

Whether Carmen is the right direction for Boston Ballet is another matter. The company premiered Jorma Elo’s SHARP side of DARK in 2002 and his Plan to B in 2004, and last year it named him its resident choreographer. For Carmen, he chose the 45-minute Carmen Suite that Rodion Shchedrin, drawing on Bizet’s themes, composed for his wife, Maya Plisetskaya; Alberto Alonso choreographed the ballet, and Plisetskaya starred in its 1967 premiere at the Bolshoi. (You can see a 1969 performance of the work, with Plisetskaya, on a VAI DVD; it looks like Carmen as staged by Rod Serling.) Scored for strings and percussion, Shchedrin’s work is the ghost of Bizet’s opera, with some tunes, like the Toreador Song, hinted at rather than played, others transmogrified (the Overture as a xylophone duet?), and the Farandole, guesting from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, stripped of its countermelody even as Elo strips the women of their skirts.

Elo’s ballet is set in an urban wasteland reminiscent of SHARP side and Plan to B, with nine spotlights (Mikki Kunttu did the design) hovering and descending and a bifurcated amphitheater backdrop that suggests the halves of a bullring. His scenario suggests William Forsythe choreographing West Side Story, with packs of dancers moving on and off stage at will and the principals showing lots of attitude. And he gives us the ghost of Prosper Mérimée’s story: Michaela in a writhing opening solo, Don José getting disciplined by Zuniga, Don José and Carmen, Don José and Michaela, Mercedes and Carmen, Carmen and Escamillo, Escamillo and Don José, Don José and Carmen again. Not everything is geared to an audience’s one and only viewing; if your eye is on the dancing, you’re apt to miss Don José smothering Zuniga in the shadows, or Carmen stripping Escamillo of his shirt, and when at the end of his first duet with Carmen Don José drifts backward to be swallowed up by the set, you might not grasp that he’s going to prison. Beyond that, Elo’s vocabulary is a little thin for a 50-minute work. His signature moves — the segmentation of body parts (the ancestral line here descends from Nijinska), the windmilling of arms, the “Cowboy Up” whipping on and off stage with one arm raised, the stare-’em-down face-offs — are familiar from SHARP side and Plan to B, they’re not used to create character, and they wear out before the end.

It would have been interesting to see what different casts made of this Carmen, but the company wound up sending out virtually the same dancers for the first three performances last weekend. Karine Seneca revels in choreographic Cubism; she’s as implacable a Carmen as she was a Bride, and she adds the opera heroine’s sulky ennui. Roman Rykine’s Don José pulls his head in and his shoulders up to suggest that Carmen is too much woman for him, though he’s battling to stay with her, and also to contain his anger. It’s an exhausting part, but Rykine maintained his coiled aggression through three consecutive performances. Carlos Molina was an introverted Escamillo who looked uncomfortable with his shirt off, though he had his usual commanding line; Sabi Varga exploded on stage Friday with boundless exuberance and self-confidence. Although she’s the beginning and end of the ballet, Lia Cirio’s Michaela looks awash in the self-pity of Bizet’s character. Pavel Gurevich gives the requisite authority to Zuniga and Melissa Hough a non-stop energy to Mercedes. At one point, Kathleen Breen Combes, who’s in the ensemble, does a duet with Hough; it’s a big enough part to have been identified as Frasquita, Carmen’s other friend in the opera. And Joel Prouty in his brief star turn could as easily have been Don José’s fellow corporal, Morales.

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