Vamping By Numbers

Watch the buxom Carmen take her final tumble down the red-carpeted stage--blood spurting from her throat, her white-flounced dress sailing over her body--while out in the dark house, the audience sits perfectly still. As the curtain falls, there stands her murderer, Don Jose, staring into the distance, all anguish and theatrical intensity. When the curtain next rises, the audience explodes with enthusiasm, frantically clapping through multiple curtain calls. Ovation follows ovation. Yet, despite the reaction of most everyone else, the Minnesota Opera's revival of their 1990-season hit, Carmen, left me thinking that we'd all gotten the short end of the stick--that the passion and vibrancy of Carmen had been swapped for some symbolic lighting and set design and a few gaudy costumes.

Georges Bizet's beloved warhorse recounts the story of a lustful gypsy (Carmella Jones) who teaches many a man that "love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame." Don Jose (Peter Riberi), a "good man" who serves humbly in the army and who loves his mother and his virginal sweetheart Micaela, falls hard for Carmen, following her to her gypsy camp in the mountains. Eventually (some might say inevitably) he loses her passion to another, the dashing bull fighter Escamillo. Ruined and deeply disturbed, Don Jose solves his romantic quandary the old-fashioned way: He kills her.

Part of the bite in the story of Don Jose's passion for Carmen is that he initially resists her siren song--unlike all the other men who drool over Carmen as she languidly pours out of the cigarette factory singing the famous "Habanera" ("Love is a gypsy child, he has never heard of law. If you don't love me, I love you; if I love you, look out for yourself."). Yet in this production, Don Jose is presented merely as the last admirer in a long line of adoring prospects, cheating the scene of the reluctance and tension it might have augured. Too, Carmella Jones as Carmen seemed a bit sluggish, weaving between the soldiers with the assured sensuality of a drunk college girl slaloming between kegs. Where is the leopard-skinned seductress smoldering on the program cover?

And did I mention that this particular production is set in the 1950s? Not that it has much bearing on the story, except to account for a few garish production numbers, the most unpalatable of which occurs at the opening of Act II. Carmen and her friends Fransquita and Mercedes sing and dance to a hypnotic tune at a tavern: here, regrettably rendered as a strip joint. Neon bathes the stage in gaudy sequence: red, pink, blue. Carmen, stuffed in leopard-print pedal pushers and a black rhinestone-rimmed top, and her gaudy cohorts (bedizened in cat ears and fishnet stockings) crank their stuff in front of the soldiers. For a comparable effect, imagine watching Cats with one eye and the Madonna video for "Open Your Heart" with the other. Surely, if Bizet's hypnotic "Gypsy Song" had been able to express itself physically, it would have mounted the stage and pulled the curtain down.

Maybe some of this absurd costuming and choreography was done with the growing 18-to-24-year-old opera-going demographic in mind; this would not be the first Gen X-targeted production to miss the mark. Or, perhaps, it is merely a bad token of the generally good direction that the Minnesota Opera has been moving over the last decade--creating innovative sets and costumes based on abstractions instead of building cheap imitations of Metropolitan Opera mansions. Yet as any fashion magazine could tell you, beauty is but skin deep, and the Minnesota Opera neglects the substance beneath the surface at its creative peril.

Carmen should be a tale of insane passion, full of color and melody. Here, with a few exceptions (most notably, Stella Zambalis as Micaela, whose fervent voice melts and soars), there seemed to be little feeling. In the program notes, director Keith Warner considers why Carmen managed to capture the imagination so completely. "Is Carmen an archetype of the modern woman," he writes, "independent, dynamic, in full charge of her own sexuality? To be admired for her strength and non-acceptance of the male order? Or is she a male fantasy figure?... Or an everywoman, caught in the great machine of fate? A sacrificial victim, destined to die?"

Warner's earnest inquiry into Carmen's social function seems yet another over-deliberate aspect of this meticulously planned production. (Which is not to mention the proliferation of Busby Berkeley-type choreography.) Yet one wonders: Isn't it more important to be felled by Bizet's music, by passionate acting and singing? To be so uplifted and affected by it all that one couldn't possibly be in any shape to make gender judgments about anyone? Although Don Jose was responsible for the blood running over Carmen's chest, the Minnesota Opera's misguided production and lethargic performances might have cinched her demise.

Carmen runs through May 18 at the Ordway Theatre; call 224-4222.

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