A scene from "Carmen" by the San Diego Opera.
A scene from “Carmen” by the San Diego Opera.

By Pat Launer

Donna Reed meets David Bowie and Rocky Horror, backed by a ‘70s light show.

“The Tragedy of Carmen” may not have had something for everyone. But it certainly had a little something of everything.

The stripped-down, 90-minute version of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera, “Carmen,” was adapted by acclaimed English director Peter Book, with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and composer Marius Constant.

Brook’s original 1981 production featured a bare stage and black-clad actors. None of that for director Alexander Gedeon, who helmed the three-performance production that represented the second in San Diego Opera’s Shiley Detour Series, dedicated to operatic works “of an experimental nature.”

In this presentation, the country girl, Micaëla (Canadian soprano Adriana Chuchman) is all ‘50s white gloves, white pumps and crinolined party dress, with a demure little kerchief tied under her chin. As she snuggles up to her beloved homeboy, army corporal Don José (Canadian tenor Adrian Kramer), the irresistible Romani (Gypsy) fortuneteller Carmen (American mezzo Peabody Southwell) emerges from a scrap-heap, smothered in ratty fur, which she slips off to reveal a buttoned bustier, short boots and thigh-high red stockings (when she seductively removes and balls them up, they’ll stand in for the cherished rose the original Carmen gave to Don José, after luring him away from his girlfriend).

This Carmen’s outfit, coupled with her wild black hair and kohl-rimmed eyes, makes her look like an escapee from Transsexual Transylvania – and her later actions support that Rocky Horror analogy.

She has a ménage à trois with the Don José’s commanding officer, Zuniga (American actor Anthony Nikolchev, who also sings the role of Carmen’s husband, Garcia) and Lillas Pastia (local actor Max Cadillac), a drag queen who runs a pretty wild and free establishment. She even has a sensual moment with Micaëla, as they sit on Carmen’s bed and kiss over the still-warm corpse of Garcia.

The self-aggrandizing bullfighter, Escamillo (American bass-baritone Ryan Kuster) swaggers into Lillas Pastia’s place, bare-chested, in a white and gold jumpsuit (part young Elvis, part Bowie).

How the various characters live, love and die is different from the classical opera, but Brooks was working directly from Bizet’s source material, the 1846 novella, “Carmen,” by Prosper Mérimée, which was darker and somewhat more complex. There is no band of smugglers here, but there’s plenty else going on.

This version goes pretty far with its sexual explicitness and sexual fluidity. It’s a19th century French story set in Spain, with 21st-century sensibility and a mid-20th-century America look. It’s all highlighted by ever-changing, op/pop, psychedelic lighting (John A. Garofalo).

Odd combo. Odd choices. And yet, oddly, it works.

The singing, for one, is superb, especially the two women. They also act better than their male counterparts, who are decidedly less physically and emotionally flexible (except for Cadillac, also effectuve in drag at Cygnet Theatre, in “Pageant”) .The entire cast is notably appealing and attractive, and they deliver all of Bizet’s greatest hits with aplomb.

The 15-piece orchestra, under the baton of Christopher Rountree, alternates between a full and robust sound, and solo instrumental work, such as the cello at the outset and at times, just  piano.

There’s unexpected humor in the piece; when Zuniga is killed by Don José, he and Carmen have a good deal of funny business in trying to prop him up to seem alive, as Escamillo sings his big “Toreador” number  (a bit of a scene-stealer, that business).

Among the modifications to the well-known story, Fate plays an expanded role (Carmen foretells her death by Don José, and makes herself readily available to him for the killing at the end).

Perhaps this version is not for purists. But this production was an inventive and sometimes head-spinning introduction to the glorious music, and a perfect ‘experimental’ approach to opera, for open-minded aficionados and  those new to the artform.

  • “Carmen” ran for three performances only. It was the second of San Diego Opera’s Shiley Detour Series.

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.