Sunday, November 12, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Critic's Notebook

Outraged By `Carmen'? So Were Parisians In 1875

With the recent brouhaha over the Seattle Opera production of "Carmen," many of the outraged and offended seem to have lost track of an essential task of art.

Art - not all art, certainly, but enough to keep us awake and vital - is about outrage and challenge. From the Greeks onward, artists have depicted aspects of life and states of being that no one else dares to bring to light. And those who hold the mirror up to nature, and reflect it vividly, tend to take a lot of heat for it.

This is often conveniently forgotten after a piece of art is canonized and (thanks to changing mores and mass consumption) tamed down. Take, for instance, "CarHmen." As far as I can tell, the controversy over the Seattle Opera version has nothing to do with Georges Bizet's score. Or the opera-comique libretto, based on a Prosper Merimee novel.

Everyone seems to accept as benign the plot about a tempestuous Spanish gypsy girl who seduces a naive army corporal, then drives him into a homicidal rage of jealousy when she dumps him for a bullfighter.

That "Carmen" is about sex and death apparently isn't bothersome - as long as this most popular of all operas is done "tastefully," without the brutish edge and overt sensuality of the Seattle production.

When "Carmen" premiered in Paris in 1875, however, its story 1--------------------and characters were deemed so vulgar, so scandalous that the opera failed miserably. It was later embraced as a masterpiece, but Bizet died before seeing his reputation redeemed.

The list of artistic landmarks that caused consternation when first unveiled is substantial. Sometimes the problem was subject matter or nudity, other times heretical ideas or pushing-the-envelope aesthetics.

Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of LSpring" ballet music instigated a full-scale riot when introduced in Paris in 1913, so angered were listeners by the dissonant harmonHics we now take in stride. In the 1920s, James Joyce's novel "Ulysses" faced protracted censorship battles, thanks largely to a lyrical, life-affirming and erotic female reverie that is now widely celebrated.

As for plays, who would be shocked today by August StrindHberg's"Miss Julie" and Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts" - though they dismayed 19th-century audiences Lwith references to the taboos of intra-class sexual relations?

And if certain enraged and misHguided citizens had prevailed, such movies as "The Last Picture Show," "Carnal Knowledge" and "Never on Sunday" would have been banned from public view.

The age and status of a "classic" work tends to enshrine and uplift it for us. We swallow Shakespeare's plays, naughty Elizabethan trash-2talk and all, without offense.

But new works, and new interpretations of old classics, still rankle sensibilities. The 30 seconds of male nudity in John Guare's recent play, "Six Degrees of Separation" - entirely appropriate within the context of the play, not gratuitous - made some Seattle Repertory Theatre patrons apopletic.

When Intiman Theatre produces Terrence McNally's "Love! Valor! Compassion!" next year, there are sure to be squawks about the spectacle of a man sunbathing in the buff. Ancient Greek statuary of bare men is perfectly acceptable now - but guys baring it all on stage? Still dirty.

The far-ranging subject of cultural standards is a wide, deep and contradictory morass in this society - though right-wing talk show hosts and some legislators have had some success in boiling it all down into an excuse for political scapegoating and cuts in government funs for the arts.

Let's concede that large, gratuitous doses of raunchy sex and bloody violence on stage, page, record and film are at the very least annoying and stupid - though still perfectly legal, under the U.S. Constitution.

The high body count in all those "Die Hard" and "Friday the 13th" movies serves no discernible purpose, other than to sell tickets to millions of pubescent thrill-seekers.

But Seattle Opera's "Carmen" (originally conceived for the Minnesota Opera) was clearly an artistic endeavor with a valid interpretative thrust. Given that "Carmen" focuses on erotic obsession and murder, why not strip it to those essentials? Why not starkly expose that scarlet core of out-of-control passion Lagainst a Spain under Generalissimo Franco's iron control?

We can disagree as to whether this "Carmen" achieved its interpretive aims or realized its conceptual goals. And whether the performers sang the score well, or were lit and costumed artfully.

We can even debate the validity of the story itself, and question whether such passions seem true to our perceptions of human nature.

But it is historically myopic to accuse anyone of ruining "Carmen" by making it sexy and violent. If Bizet had wanted to match his glorious music to a fairy tale, he would have done so. Instead, he pushed the envelope.

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


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