Toreador, be on your guard. Prosper Merimee’s novella “Carmen” has seen numerous adaptations for the stage, opera, film and ballet, and seemingly every previous version has been ransacked for the hodgepodge of a musical now in its La Jolla world premiere. Relying on flamboyant visuals and a score pummeling us into submission to disguise the largely incoherent plot and stock characters right out of the “Les Miz” playbook, this is not your father’s “Carmen,” though in its endless stream of power ballads and unfocused, moony romanticism, it may well be your little sister’s.
On a “magic circle” evidently borrowed from Peter Brook’s “Tragedie de Carmen,” helmer Franco Dragone works with Salvador Dali on his shoulder to seize every opportunity to go over the top, or over the big top given his history as Cirque du Soleil impresario. Some of the imagery is stunning, notably act two’s candlelit opening and sand-streaming finale, as well as the full-stage flurry of paper tobacco leaves defining Carmen’s factory. Some is downright risible: a hanging corpse that no one mentions; a gargoyle atop a giant crucifix. If a supine skeleton isn’t enough to announce that doom is near, rest assured a black-clad duenna is nearby.
Overall it’s a case of throwing everything plus the kitchen sink — and the key syllable there is “kitsch” — at a trite passion and revenge tale that’s complicated without being complex and never makes a lick of sense.
When we first meet Don Jose (Ryan Silverman), he’s assaulting some random fellow, a habit he follows with numbing regularity. “God will forgive you,” sings pious, long-suffering wife Micaela (Shelley Thomas), though as his body count mounts it seems increasingly unlikely. Why so angry? Something about his Basque stock and absent father: “I’m a thief of my innocence,” Silverman sings powerfully, if in shaky pitch at the top register. “Rage has swallowed me whole but I want back my soul.”
Conscripted as his punishment and posted to Seville, he encounters — who else — the cigar-rolling, free-spirited gypsy Carmen (Janien Valentine), introduced taking a clothed full-body bath downstage in proud defiance of her body miking. “Freedom lives inside of me,” warbles the Kelly Clarkson look- and sound-alike. “I will not bow, beg, plead or borrow,” though she does all four numerous times by tuner’s end; one learns quickly that listening too closely to AnnMarie Milazzo’s lyrics yields more confusion than rewards.
Most versions keep a tight grip, as Merimee did, on the two hapless lovers with intertwined destinies. Oddly, librettist Sarah Miles drops the Basque/gypsy “otherness” that would separate Jose and Carmen from the rest of the pack and instead gives equal time to Escamillo (Victor Wallace), the saturnine matador; Zuniga (Neal Benari), the saturnine officer; and Garcia (Caesar Samayoa), Carmen’s saturnine bandit husband — and that’s at least two saturnine romantic foils too many. Tangential to the storytelling, each bleats his love for Carmen in song after indistinguishable song with interchangeable lyrics.
The story galumphs along with plenty of heavy-handed rhyme but little reason and no one to care about or even like, Carmen included. Merimee’s gypsy is as modern as Mother Courage, a tough bird with her eye on the main chance, a fatalist contemptuous of the notions of morality and pure love. What a heroine of a musical drama she’d make!
But Miles insists on shoving this classically ambiguous figure into the standard musical-comedy meat grinder to make her sympathetic and “explain” her, so her actions from page to page, sometimes within a single scene, are inconsistent and baffling. Now she’s scornful, now sultry, now sincere and back to scornful again. Can she love at all? Sometimes she says yes, sometimes no. Even Valentine’s prodigious talents as actress, singer and dancer can’t find a throughline for this role.
Still, many audiences won’t notice or care, carried as they are on an ocean of sound. “Carmen” sings with the soul of a pop star (not meant as a compliment). Each song has a character planting his feet and announcing his current emotional state using every bit of vocal technique at his command, abetted by sudden key changes and volume at full blast. (A future episode of “American Idol” featuring “Carmen Night” would offer no dearth of competitor selections.) Some of John Ewbank’s music seems pleasant and even catchy at first hearing, but nearly three hours of exhausting ballads written, sung and orchestrated to evoke audience whooping but never moving the story forward come to feel like an assault.
It’s an assault on the ear rather more so than the eye, which is kept contented by Klara Zieglerova’s set design applying fluid and imaginative variations to a semicircular stone arena, and by Christopher Akerlind’s sending a vast array of clouds on to the cyclorama and “God-fingers” to highlight each performer in streams of brilliant light.
One rarely encounters a “book and choreography by” credit, and Miles’ dances are as tight and varied as her libretto is flaccid. She brings in a little ballet here, a little flamenco there and a whole lot of genuine heat; act two opens, along with that brilliant candlelight display, with a fiesta scene that actually feels like a real party, not a staged mass of fake bonhomie. If there seem to be too many challenge dances a la “America” in “West Side Story,” at least each is executed with commitment.
Best of all, none of the dances goes on too long, and all leave one wanting more. The same can’t be said for the rest of this “Carmen,” which needs some radical blue-penciling and a tougher editorial eye if it’s to move along the development trail unscathed.