- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

George Bizet’s “Carmen” is arguably one of the most popular operas ever written. “Toreador,” “Habanera,” the “Fate” music and the Gypsy song that begins the second act all remain favorites with the general public even today. Opening to lackluster reviews in 1875, “Carmen” gradually grew in stature to the point where it’s tough to get seats to any production.

The Olney Theatre has come up with one solution to this dilemma by mounting “La Tragedie de Carmen,” a 1-1/2 hour reduction of the original in French with minimal English supertitles, assembled by noted British director Peter Brook.

Sometimes known as “Peter Brook’s Carmen,” this 1981 effort reduces the characters, eliminates the chorus and pares down the orchestra to about 12 instrumentalists. The Olney goes further in the direction of minimalism by employing only dual pianos and a cello and by staging the production, virtually without scenery, in its tiny Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab.

Those who appreciate opera as spectacle will question what Mr. Brooks has gained by eliminating all the color and pageantry and fiddling with the plot in turning Don Jose into a sort of passive mass murderer. Furthermore, Mr. Brooks reintroduces the spoken dialogue much as it might have appeared in the original — which was part of the cause of its early failure. Nonetheless, the economies employed here trim this long evening down to the main characters and essential arias that everyone comes to hear, and at a price nearly everyone can afford.

“Carmen,” based on a story by French writer Prosper Merimee, tells the tale of a Gypsy woman with a determined zeal for serial affairs. After being sprung from prison by Don Jose, who eventually becomes her lover, she makes goo-goo eyes at his old boss and then sets her cap for the toreador Escamillo. Not bad for a few months’ work.

Carmen’s sexual voraciousness was shocking in her day. Mr. Brook’s pared-down version emphasizes this trait by reducing the male characters to nearly passive satellites orbiting around her smoldering sun.

The Olney’s realization of this “Carmen,” which runs without an intermission, is a collaboration with Boston University’s Opera Institute, ably helmed by Jim Petosa. It’s populated by a number of that institution’s young singers and actors, most of whom are amazingly talented.

Mounted with a rotating cast, Wednesday’s opening night featured mezzo-soprano Stephanie Chigas in the role of the sultry Carmen, whose increasing discard pile of suitors constitutes a monument to her fickle will. Her voice was rich and full of the promise of things to come, and her French diction was superb.

As her baffled suitor, Don Jose, tenor Darren Anderson turned in a fine performance in one of opera’s more ungrateful roles. His singing, particularly in the evening’s concluding moments, was poised yet powerful.

In the small but important role of Escamillo, baritone Stanislav Albanov was disappointing. He had the requisite bullfighter’s swagger, but he was frequently a quarter tone flat.

As is so often the case in “Carmen,” soprano and Bethesda native Sarah Long nearly stole the show in her brief moments as the tenderhearted Micaela, Don Jose’s discarded fiancee. Her signature Act III aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante” (“I say that nothing frightens me”) was a marvel of control, alternating bravery with fear, and convincing high notes with a mellow midrange.

**

WHAT: Peter Brook’s “La Tragedie de Carmen”

WHERE: The Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: Tonight at 7:30 p.m., tomorrow at 2:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $45

TELEPHONE: 301/924-3400 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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