- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 26, 2005

Call it “Beach Blanket Bizet” or “Low-Carb Carmen,” Peter Brook’s 1981 adaptation of Georges Bizet’s tragedy is so stripped of romanticism and operatic trappings that it begins in dirt and ends in the dirt.

Olney director Jim Petosa substitutes sand for dirt in his bracing, boot camp version of the voluptuous classic, but Mr. Brook’s manifesto still stands — if this opera were any more trim, members of the audience would leave their cars idling in the parking lot, run into the lobby and stab Carmen and still have plenty of time left over to stop for ice cream on the way home.

Mr. Brook’s impetus for this condensed staging of “Carmen” came from his disgusted view of opera as a “mausoleum.” He decided to take Bizet’s 1845 opera down to the bone with a cast of seven, a 15-piece orchestra and a running time of 80 minutes (down from nearly three hours).

What’s left are a smattering of famous arias and familiar music and plenty of squalor. Not one speck of romantic idealism or sensuality remains, only the clawing machinations of a prostitute who lives off the meager largesse of men.

Carmen (Stephanie Chigas) is a gypsy who dances, reads tarot cards, and is an exotic siren to practically every guy she meets. First, she seduces Don Jose (Darren T. Anderson), a pouty soldier with anger management issues. He falls desperately in love with Carmen, although as she warns in her signature aria, “Habanera,” “When will I love you? Good lord, I don’t know./Maybe never, maybe tomorrow.” Don Jose is either not particularly bright or thinks she’s playing hard to get, but he does not take her words seriously and trots after her like a dumbstruck puppy anyway. He follows her through a succession of men, some of whom wind up dead after Don Jose’s jealousy gets the better of him. Amid all this tawdriness, there is a glint of nobility in the form of the matador Escamillo (Scott Skiba), a courtly bullfighter, whom, alas, gets gorged by el toro shortly after he and Carmen share a smooch.

The depressing dreariness of watching a woman degraded goes on until Don Jose kills Carmen — stabs her in the back, what a caddish move — and we are not shocked as much as relieved.

Mr. Brook’s version is meant to point up how poor and undereducated women are exploited in society and how women are defined by the sexual company they keep.

Certainly true, but is that why we go to the opera? It’s like saying we attend “Swan Lake” to learn more about bird conservation efforts.

The cast doesn’t seem to be completely at ease with James Kronzer’s raked, beachfront set either —which is a sunbaked stunner but not user-friendly. You can be many things in the sand, but graceful is not one of them. Seeing Miss Chigas and the rest of the cast having to sing the difficult score and slog through the sand evokes sympathies that have nothing to do with the characters they portray. Miss Chigas, who possesses a fine voice with the right amount of smolder, not only has to fight the beach, but also a burdensome cloak in the opening sequence that seemed to vex and engulf her.

Maybe it was the sand, maybe it is the music, but some members of the cast appeared to be having problems with stamina and projection, especially in the beginning. In spots, the phrasing and enunciation was a bit sloppy and rushed.

Opera should be grand, the emotions writ large. It is an odd juxtaposition to have such lush, scorching music and lyrics and a staging so mean and spare. Mr. Petosa interjects some much-needed humor and humanity into the work, but in the end the concept dominates and you walk away feeling diminished.

**1/2

WHAT: “La Tragedie de Carmen,” by Georges Bizet, adaptation by Peter Brook

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

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 17.

TICKETS: $15 to $39

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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