Bad, Bad Girl. Good, Good Ballet.

We went to see Cleveland Ballet’s Carmen last Friday. It was very good, yet another step forward for a company that keeps getting better and better. But as usual we want to tell you what we liked and why.

When the curtain goes up we see a sign, Tabacalera, telling us that we are in a tobacco factory, but it is the corps de ballet that sets the scene, showing us by their bodily attitudes that it is very hot in Seville, the frying pan of Europe, and that they are tired, bored factory workers. Manuela, the factory’s leading gypsy, played by Elena Cvetkovich, is trying to keep things moving but when Carmen, played by Daynelis Munoz, arrives late the factory workers are eager to take sides and a stirring dance battle between the two women ensues. Cvetkovich and Munoz dance their parts with passionate intensity but everything is amplified by the corps de ballet. The body language of the men’s corps tells us what a hot number Carmen is and half of the women swirl around her showing us how charismatic she is. The other half supports Manuela.

All very dramatic, but it’s at this point that the recorded music suddenly stops and the corps de ballet provides a live sound track that further amplifies the conflict. They pound rhythmically on the tables. They sing a spirited folk song. The men clap rhythmically and shout encouragement as Manuela and Carmen dance. Dear readers, this is not how to de-escalate a labor dispute.

At the end of that long but very effective initial scene, Cleveland Ballet’s Carmen moves very quickly through the next several plot points. When Carmen produces a knife and cuts Manuela, the police led by Don Jose, played by Rainier Diaz, arrive instantaneously. There’s a very fast scene change as Munoz, Diaz, and the 2 police take a few steps downstage, a scrim drops into place, and artfully cast shadows of barred windows show us that we are in a jail. Deep in a dungeon, actually, but Munoz’ Carmen is not even momentarily intimidated as she confidently works her feminine wiles on Diaz’ very uncomfortable-looking Don Jose, who does nothing as she walks out of the jail. The other two police do not hesitate to step up to Don Jose and rip his epaulettes off, stripping him of his authority and his employment. So, in the short but effective second scene, Don Jose has met Carmen and taken the next step down in his long fall.

Rather than go on like this to describe the tavern scene, the bedroom tryst, the bull ring, and the moonlit wilderness in which Don Jose finally murders Carmen, let us go back and consider how the various production elements work together. Should we credit the shadows of those prison bars to Lighting Designer Dennis Dugan or to Tim Haas’ Scenic Design and Construction? As the female gypsies swirled around Carmen and Manuela, their skirts shone with jewel-like intensity, the product of astute fabric selection by Costume Designers Sam Meredith, Irina Mochalova, and Marie Quintana, as well as Dugan’s lighting.

The music for Cleveland Ballet’s Carmen is a story in its own right. We’ve mentioned the corps de ballet’s live contribution. The recorded music includes – yes — music from Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875) but also recorded music from another opera based on Prosper Mérimée’s novella, Manuel Penella’s El Gato Montes (1916). In addition, parts of Bizet’s Carmen were sung live for Cleveland Ballet’s Carmen. Soprano Zoya Gramagin sang the Habanera live, stepping out of the bedroom woodwork to explain beautifully how “Love is a rebellious bird.” Mikhael Urusov, long familiar to Cleveland Ballet audiences, sang El Toreador. Mykhaylo Katrych also sang live. Classical Guitarist Yury Nugmanov accompanied singers and played intermittently throughout. What problems of engineering and editing had to be overcome in order to produce the beautiful, nearly seamless sound track we heard in the Ohio Theatre? If we ever meet Musical Arranger Yury Tyurin or the uncredited audio engineers, we intend to ask them.

We watched Munoz and Diaz as Carmen and Don Jose twice, once in an open rehearsal in which they marked many of the larger dance movements but still effectively portrayed their passionate love / hate relationship with marvelous economy of expression and gesture. Watching these two highly proficient technicians dancing full out at the Ohio Theatre, we got the feeling that choreographer Gladisa Guadalupe had opted for solid characterizations rather than ballet pyrotechnics.

Tall and technically proficient Damian Coro is obviously right for the part of Escamillio the toreador but he inevitably makes less of an impression than the other principals because he’s only the other man, the final wrinkle in the plot that sends Don Jose over the edge in a murderous rage.

Munoz, Diaz, and Coro are all originally from Cuba where they trained at the Cuban National Ballet School and danced in the prestigious Cuban National Ballet. But playing opposite them and holding up her end very nicely is Carmen’s foil, Manuela, danced by Elena Cvetkovich, much of whose training was in Northeast Ohio. Cvetkovich is a longtime company stalwart who has always done wonders with roles large and small, whether as the title character in Coppelia or as the goofy Tweedle-Dum in Alice.

After only 2 performances, will we ever see this Carmen again? Perhaps with a different cast or in excerpts? Judging from past Cleveland Ballet productions, we would have to say that it’s unlikely. You may deserve a world class ballet company, but if you want to actually see them you need to get your proverbial butt in a seat.

If, however, you want to see a dance version of Carmen, we recommend the following on DVD or Blu-Ray. 

For his Carmen Suite, composer Rodion Shchedrin radically shortened and simplified the narrative and changed the score’s instrumentation. The result is very different but widely admired. It comes up readily on Amazon.com but be sure to get one with Maya Plisetskaya dancing as Carmen.

Carlos Saura’s flamenco Carmen fiddles around with plot and motivation to no particular purpose, but still delivers individual scenes with outstanding music and dance performances. Saura has his characters point out the advantage of a small flamenco ensemble over an orchestra – according to them it’s better to dance to and we agree – but still uses large swatches of the original orchestral score. Both Shchedrin and Saura seem to have decided that you can fiddle with plot and motivation but you omit those well-loved Bizet melodies at your peril.

Next for Cleveland Ballet, Nutcracker, 12/5 – 15/2019 at the Hanna Theatre. For show times, more information, or tickets @ $25 – $79 go to PlayhouseSquare.org or phone 216-241-6000.

We watched Cleveland Ballet’s Carmen at the Ohio Theatre on Friday 10/18/2019.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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