Stepping Up

Tucson Finally Gets A Glimpse Of The 20th Century Carmen.

IN THE MID-1990s, Minnesota Opera did a daring new staging of Carmen, the 1875 work by Georges Bizet that is one of the world's most beloved operas.

The company kept the piece's Spanish military setting but pushed it forward in time from 1830 to the 20th century Spanish Civil War, the bloody conflict where the losers were republicans and the winners fascist. That switch makes its lovesick hero, Don José, a member of Generalisimo Francisco Franco's despised army. Despite this tricky casting and its evocation of a bitter war that has only recently begun to fade from living memory, the new production was a huge audience hit. Its Carmen, Denyse Graves, was propelled into stardom, and its success was repeated in half a dozen cities.

Arizona Opera opens a similar Carmen this weekend in Tucson, though without Graves.

"It's been performed in five or six cities," says general director David Speers, who staged one of the retooled Carmens in Calgary. "I've seen three of them live and every night it gets the audience up on its feet. It's a little more in-your-face; it's got a hard edge to it. But the story is like that. It's about jealousy, fickleness and revenge."

Speers thinks audiences relate better to the more recent time period.

"This was another historic period that's probably a little more accessible .-- The political background going on, in the war, is the same as in the original piece .-- For anyone who knows opera, they also know it's about personal relationships in a time of civil war in Spain."

The personal relationships, of course, are exactly what give Carmen its florid emotional character. Carmen is opera's quintessential Bad Girl, a sensuous factory worker who ignites an erotic obsession in the hapless soldier Don José. For Carmen, Don José gives up Micaëla, the Nice Girl he'd planned to marry, destroys his military career and loses his all-important honor. Carmen rewards his devotion by getting a hankering for a handsome bullfighter. A happy ending is decidedly not in the cards.

Arizona Opera's Carmen doesn't clamp the conventional rose between her teeth or wear frilly skirts, Speers says; she dresses in racy cabaret style, complete with fishnet stockings. The set, austere and modernist, relies on colored lighting to raise the emotional temperature. Its "rising huge, white wall" stands in for places as diverse as a bullfight arena and a bar. In the violent final act the white wall is doused in blood-red lights. The lights also have a salutary practical effect: Since no cumbersome set changes are needed, they allow scenes to follow each other almost continuously. Compressed into two parts with intermission, the opera runs about three hours.

Two newcomers to Arizona Opera take on Carmen's demanding soprano. Buffy Baggott, singing the gypsy on Friday and Sunday, once alternated the part with Graves, Speers says. Her performance is "really flamboyant, outrageous, over the top." Mary Phillips, the Saturday Carmen, by contrast is "more conniving, into herself." Both women, he says, are the kind of rising young stars that regional opera companies have the good fortune to attract these days.

"The advantage of a regional company is that they want to try out the big roles here first," out of earshot of the big-time critics, Speers says.

Tenor Jeffry Springer turns in the tragic Don José; bass Bradley Garvin, who sang Don Basilio in the October Barber of Seville at Arizona Opera, is the alluring toreador Escamillo.

Directed by James McNamara and conducted by musical director Cal Stewart Kellogg, the production has another innovation, but this one brings it full circle back to its origins. Bizet structured the opera with spoken dialogue between the full-throated arias. But the composer died three months after Carmen debuted to thunderous criticism, and after his death, Speers says, a well-meaning friend jazzed it up by setting the spoken words to sing-song music, recitative-style. Arizona Opera, a veteran of at least three Carmens in its 30-year history, for the first time restores "its original version, with spoken recitation."

That won't detract from its musical brilliance, Speers declares. The music, familiar as the soundtrack in the movie The Bad News Bears and in countless advertisements, includes "one of opera's most famous arias--the 'Toreador Song.' The music of Carmen is still the most accessible in opera."

Arizona Opera presents Carmen at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Nov. 3 and 4, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. The opera will be sung in French, with English surtitles, and performed to the music of a live orchestra. Tickets are $21 to $69, and are available at the box office (791-4836), at all Ticketmaster outlets (321-1000) and at Arizona Opera (293-4336).