San Diego After a number ended, late in the La Jolla Playhouse's Carmen, five or so dancers stood in a circle, illumined in red. Then four left the stage. The fifth, facing front, remained, as if she had a function in the next scene, slowly materializing behind her. Offstage you could hear a heartfelt "Pssst!" The dancer flashed a deer-in-the-headlights look, her mouth formed an O, and she raced off. Hers was the only spontaneous reaction in the entire performance.
We all have our Carmens. At some point some production of the Bizet opera, or Prosper Merimee's 1845 novel, or one of the thirty or so re-imaginings established permanent residence in the memory banks. Something about the tragic tale makes everything on our side of the proscenium feel mundane: a man who renounces the world, but for a woman, not a religion; a gitanella who lives not moment-to-moment. Carmen lives moment/then moment, each a separate world, and woe to the man who tries to connect them.
This is Lorca territory. The original libretto for the Bizet opera, by H. Meilhac and L. Halevy, pares Merimee's novella to essentials, with the passion, the damn-the-torpedoes fatality of Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding: trim, swift, inexorable.
The bulbous, blaring world premiere at the Playhouse takes the opposite tack. It's full of sound and fury --but for everything. Under Franco Dragone's relentless, preemptive-strike direction, a dropped bota bag or a skinned knee would receive the same epic, orgasmic treatment as Les Miz at the barricades. Since everything gets staged with equal intensity, the real dramatic moments lose emphasis.
One example. The famous tobacco factory scene begins with bushels of leaves spiraling down on the female workers like giant yellow teardrops. But it's downhill after the knockout visual. Carmen sings "Freedom Is Now" and seduces her co-workers from their status quo beliefs. Then Carmen duels with a co-worker. But they don't fight. They do a flamenco dance-off, rousing but so stylized it trades danger for showbiz -- the director's pet tactic -- 1830 Seville for 2007 Broadway. Almost as an afterthought, Carmen stabs the woman. She dies. Next scene.
The music isn't sung, it's shouted. Like Carmen's view of life, the notes aren't connected. Each is a distinct blast, backed by a live band determined to sound synthesized. The pop score -- chord and key changes recalling early Andrew Lloyd Webber with a pseudo-Seville tinge -- muffles the lyrics, which may be a good thing, since most people know the story and the lyrics are, at best, inane.
This production has a morbid fear of dead air. But since everything happens on one level, the story flattens out, and Carmen suffers most of all.
"She wore a red skirt, very short, which exposed to view her white silk stockings, with many a hole in them," writes Prosper Merimee of his heroine, her black lace mantilla drawn back to display her shoulders. "In my country a woman in such a costume would have made people cross themselves."
That sentence has a world view absent at the Playhouse. In the novella and the opera, Carmen is different, Other. As Carmen, except for repeatedly missed high notes, Janien Valentine has the requisite fire. But so does everyone else! Soldiers, bullfighters, cigar-rollers belt tunes and dance Sarah Miles's passionate but repetitious patterns with vigor. No one's repressed. No one's offended. No stockings have holes. The exuberance around her dwarfs Carmen.
The production does have arresting sights: smoke wafts and billows along the ground with such precision you'd swear it's choreographed. At one point Christopher Akerlind's otherwise circus-garish lighting turns green ivy into red bougainvillea. A giant cross and a hanged man suspend from above. Many scenes take place, however, within an ugly, floor-to-ceiling black metallic façade. It's like being locked inside the Man in the Iron Mask's mask.
The cast has obvious talent, even when performing in Assault Mode. Ryan Silverman sings Jose's numbers in a rich, booming tenor. The production sells every song as a show-stopper, but when Silverman closes Act One with Jose's soliloquy "To Say Goodbye," questioning whether he should leave his wife for Carmen, it's the genuine article. The night I caught the show, some in the audience gave Silverman and Valentine a standing ovation that they, at least, deserved.
At the other extreme: one of Carmen's lovers -- I forget which; the production blurs them together -- orders her to "ven aca" ("come here" in Spanish). Only the actor pronounces it vaca, which means "cow."
Carmen, book by Sarah Miles, music by John Ewbank, lyrics by AnnMarie Milazzo, based on the novella by Prosper Merimee
La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD
Directed by Franco Dragone; cast: Janien Valentine, Ryan Silverman, Victor Wallace, Natalia Zisa, Neal Bernari, Shannon Lewis, Cesar Samayoa, Carlos Sierra-Lopez, Shelly Thomas, Genson Blimline; scenic design, Klara Zieglerova; costumes, Suzy Benzinger; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Francois Bergeron; choreography, Sarah Miles; music director, Jeffrey Klitz
Playing through July 22; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.