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OPERA REVIEW : Long Beach Stages Crazed, Brave 'Carmen'

August 16, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

OK, guys, here's the picture. It isn't pretty.

The opera Saturday night was good old, foolproof well, it used to seem foolproof--"Carmen." Everybody's favorite.

You know, the one about the gypsy-pipsy with the low voice and the dumb soldier with the high voice and that nifty sing-along Toreador who live and love in a quaint never-never land called Seville. The time, it says here in my trusty opera guide, is 1820.

But wait a minute. This wasn't the dull and mighty Metropolitan Opera. This was the poor but adventurous Long Beach Opera, ensconced for the nonce at the Ford Amphitheatre across the freeway from Hollywood Bowl.

That makes a lot of differences. Start with the designs, attributed to Mark Wendland. The four acts of "Carmen" are supposed to take place in different locales: in front of a cigarette fa1668575090Long Beach, trying to make an abstract advantage of fiscal necessity, plays the whole thing on a stripped-down low-tech stage dominated by a huge red billboard that depicts a languid, smoking, smoky nude.

The message on the billboard must be significant. In French--an odd language choice, since the plot invokes Spain and the cast tries to communicate in English--it says something deep: If you keep your mouth shut, you'll keep the flies out.

All the women on stage except Micaela, the erstwhile blond peasant virgin, model the same odd white costumes: corsets over voluminous, bustled skirts that look like misappropriated bed sheets. Micaela--now high-heeled, quite sophisticated and no longer blond--wears stark black. So do all the men.

The billboard is partially dismantled as the fatal finale approaches. Ah, deconstructionism. Ah, symbolism. At the outset, the sign serves as a cute backdrop with 10 neat little doors popping out to frame the 20 feeble choristers. When they aren't striking artful poses or impersonating zombies, the hard-working singers are directed by Brian Kulick to do a lot of strenuous scrambling up and down ladders and ramps.

It is all supposed to be very daring and modern: a dark new look and a bright old masterpiece. Nice idea.

This time, unfortunately, it doesn't work. As executed in Cahuenga Pass, the Long Beach "Carmen" is very self-conscious, very clumsy, very silly, very boring and, in its adherence to the now-familiar formulas of trendy stylization, very banal.

Oops. Almost forgot about the time factor. It seems the folks at Hollywood Bowl planned some fireworks at the end of their concert on Saturday. Rather than further discommode poor Bizet (he was already pretty badly discommoded, if not decomposed), the management decided to play all four acts without benefit of intermission and thus beat the "1812" overture to the ultimate cadence.

This presented something of a marathon challenge for the cast, as well as for the assembled Sitzfleisch out front. But, mirabile dictu , Don Jose did manage to dispatch the resident vamp in time for the rockets' red glare. It was just like "Ariadne auf Naxos."

The cause of forward momentum was hardly helped, however, by the novice conductor, George Pehlivanian, who sustained a sluggish--no, leaden--beat from his podium upstage right and who, even with the help of closed-circuit TV monitors, had trouble keeping his rinky-dink orchestra, scrappy choir and quasi-competent soloists together. Under the circumstances, one couldn't mourn the loss of the urchins' march in the first act or the whoop-de-do choruses in the last. The cuts were kind.

According to a program credit, incidentally, the would-be maestro's engagement was subsidized by three "generous" donors. One of them happened to bear a name surprisingly familiar in other contexts: George Deukmejian.

What's that? You want to know about the singers? Drat.

They didn't represent the Long Beach Opera at its gutsy best. In fact, they ranged from reasonably decent to, er, amateurish. They had trouble singing much of the music, and, given the (uncredited) amalgam of editions in use, they stumbled badly over the bits of dialogue retained from Bizet's original version. At least most of them articulated the awkward English translation of Nell and John Moody with telling clarity.

Most problematic in the problematic ensemble was the stolidly solid Carmen of Alice Baker. With unrelievedly thick, dark, mushy tone, she seemed more a plump and pleasing Buttercup than a flamboyantly hypnotic vamp. It was as if the nice bumboat woman from Portsmouth had bumbled into the wrong operetta.

James Schwisow introduced an essentially lyrical Jose whose desperation seemed to have as much to do with vocal strain as with emotional torment. Roy Stevens swaggered at the apparent press of a button as a woolly and wobbly Escamillo. In this company, Patricia Prunty, the chic Micaela, sounded like a blissful cross between Nellie Melba, Geraldine Farrar and Lucrezia Bori.

Some of the secondary performers, all undeniably eager, seemed voiceless. Among those who didn't, Michelle Sarkesian attracted notice as an at least modestly seductive Mercedes, and Louisa Parks hit the high notes in the ensembles deftly as a pert Frasquita.

Still, this was a "Carmen" without blood, a "Carmen" without focus, and, for all its experimental pretensions, a "Carmen" without ideas. Most damaging, perhaps, it was a "Carmen" without a Carmen.

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