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Monday, October 23, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle Times Music Critic

Opera review "Carmen," by Bizet, in Seattle Opera production; Saturday (Gold Series) and yesterday (Silver Series), continuing in the Opera House Wednesday through Nov. 4 (389-7676).

Boom! The Opera House is plunged into darkness, and the startled audience hears the orchestra explode into the downbeat of the "Carmen" overture.

In both weekend performances of Seattle Opera's "Carmen," the capacity crowd responded with nervous laughter. The downbeat more or less set the tone for the show; dramatic, abrupt, in-your-face, often shocking.

This is a "Carmen" in which brutality and evil are never far from the surface; in which some of the characters are virtually demonized; in which everybody goes a little too far. It may not precisely be Bizet's "Carmen," but it is an unforgettable show. And after you've watched and heard a cast of gifted singing actors tearing each other to pieces, maybe you'll still miss the traditional jollities of "Carmens" past - and maybe you won't.

Believe the warnings

Set in the 1950s, in Franco's Spain, this "Carmen" originated with the Minnesota Opera Company, designed by Marie-Jeanne Lecca and directed by Keith Warner. The production fully justifies Seattle Opera's warnings about a "Carmen" for adults.

Even the first-act chorus of street urchins has a distinct air of menace. A priest joins the line of men bowing and begging for Carmen's amorous favors. Gone is the convivial smugglers' tavern at Lillas Pastia's; instead, there is a sadomasochistic burlesque in progress, with the girls dressed up in horns and tails.

There are enough garters and stockings and corsetry to fill a Frederick's of Hollywood store, but director Warner doesn't merely display it; the cigarette girls writhe around on the ground with their skirts and bodices hiked up. Characters are slapped and beaten and thrown to the ground so often that the cast should be getting hazard pay.

Pushing the envelope

Some of this goes a great deal too far, especially when Zuniga is murdered in a slashing game in which the knife is passed from smuggler to smuggler. Is it tasteful? No.

Is it riveting? You bet.

The shocks are amplified by lighting designer Kim Davis, whose brilliantly jarring effects provide most of the show's visual impact, leaving the audience blinking. Lecca's costumes use color to great effect.

Conductor Steven Sloane underscores the fast, gritty action with a reading of the score that moves propulsively forward and rarely slips into tenderness or delicacy. For some reason, he had more trouble keeping the ensemble scenes together in the second performance (yesterday) than in the first (Saturday).

Strong performances

The Gold Series Carmen, Chilean-born Graciela Araya, is an exultantly self-possessed and savvy character who radiates sexual confidence. Araya's voice is fully up to the role's demands; it isn't the loveliest of instruments, but by the end of the first scene you're hooked anyway: She is Carmen.

Her Jose, Vinson Cole, has sung many roles in Seattle, but none with greater emotional fervor or vocal expertise than this one. From the eloquence of the Flower Song (with its high B-flat sung as the composer wrote it) to the manic final scene, Cole is both artful and imposing.

Silver Series, golden throat

The Silver Series Carmen, Nancy Maultsby, is new to the role, and not yet in full command of its acting requirements. But that voice! Rich, opulent, full of nuance - a major singer. The role of Jose fits Patrick Denniston's voice, but he is a rather wooden performer.

Cynthia Haymon is an exquisite Micaela; Dana Johnson and Kathryn Garber are first-rate as Frasquita and Mercedes. Henry Runey, Byron Ellis, Marc Acito, Paul Gudas and Archie Drake do excellent work, and Greer Grimsley is an unsurpassable Escamillo. The chorus, trained by George Fiore, sounds superb, if a bit hurried.

At a time when audiences are still attuned to themes of the O.J. Simpson trial, this production's sexual violence and its throat-slashing finale pack an extra wallop. You can't get more current, even with a 120-year-old opera.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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