To open Wednesday night's MATA Festival at Roulette, the composer Jacob Cooper stretched 22 seconds into nearly six minutes with Commencer un Autre Mort, a riff on the closing death scene in Bizet's Carmen.
The music was Bizet's, but the work was entirely MATA-fied for this annual festival. It shared a program with Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri’s Untitled IV for recorder ensemble Quartet New Generation, in which traditional components of classical music are reevaluated in arresting ways.
Commencer pits two stagings of Don José’s stabbing of Carmen against one another, slowing the brief moment down into an epileptic frame-by-frame juxtaposition, alternating from one performance to the other and back again in subliminal flashes. (One, seen below, is the 1978 Vienna Staatsoper version featuring Domingo and Elena Obraztsova; the other is not identified, though careful pausing reveals the Carmen to be the singer Maria Ewing, or a very convincing doppelganger).
Cooper scoured, by his estimate, roughly 100 performances to find just the right movements, music and motives. These move with such fluid intensity that at times they seem to meld together. Ewing become Obraztsova most completely at the moment of the murder, which creates a striking pull of opposites: The former is killed walking away from José, the latter dies as she walks toward him. The score remains more or less in tact, though the point to which it is slowed makes it sound like a skipped CD (which, essentially, is what it is), Bizet’s score coming in choked breaths.
“Death often seems perfunctory in opera," Cooper writes in the description of the video on YouTube. "It is so ubiquitous and so expected that it rarely elicits any sentiment in the viewer: no compassion, no terror, no pain."
He explained to me on Wednesday night that taking two characters like those in Carmen, characters as immortal to listeners as opera itself, made for the more potent recontextualization. "Take another view in a different light and it becomes something that makes us think about this in a way that we haven’t before,” he said.
The sensation of watching Cooper’s Commencer, which plays as part of a triptych at MATA (Thursday took on Michael Jackson, Friday returns to opera with Mimi’s farewell in La bohème) puts the viewer into the character of José himself, which does in fact cause us to look at the opera in a different way: The sharp cuts and glacial pace run as if this moment is being manically and maniacally played in José’s mind as he sits in prison, perhaps waiting for trial or death. Here's how it plays out:
Because the death in Carmen isn’t about Carmen, and when a tenor says the opera is about Don José, he’s not merely living up to a self-absorbed stereotype: Carmen as a character doesn’t change, doesn’t shift; she transfers physical passion but that’s her personality from the beginning. The opera is about José realizing his full, deadly potential, starting as a man who has already committed murder in the past but attempting to fight his demons in order to live a pure life. Those opposing forces, like the two performances in Cooper’s cut, battle out until the bitter end. In killing Carmen, José ultimately kills himself.