If Vanessa Williams ever has occasion to look into your eyes and sing, "If I love you, that's the end of you," believe it. The lyrics are the handiwork of Oscar Hammerstein II, but the gaze belongs to Williams, who flashed it with steely abandon over the weekend in the Kennedy Center's memorably majestic concert version of Hammerstein's 1943 musical play, "Carmen Jones."
Dressed by Oscar de la Renta in a fuchsia gown with plunging neckline and trademark ruffles, Williams sang the title role in a super-size staging of this reworking of Bizet's "Carmen," which ended a three-performance run in the Concert Hall last night. And while the temptress of legend is often portrayed as a hot-blooded sexpot, Williams's cooler sensuality lowered the temperature of the proceedings quite a bit. Tangle with her Carmen, and you play not with fire but with jagged ice.
Her presence and, more tellingly, her pop-inflected soprano were the chief reminders that the roots of the glittering event -- which brought together the opera singer Harolyn Blackwell, the Boys Choir of Harlem, the Howard University Choir and Placido Domingo conducting the National Symphony Orchestra -- owed as much to Broadway as to the world of opera. The fusing of these extraordinary talents produced an evening of glorious noise, and in the case of Blackwell, playing the supporting role of Carmen's rival, something even more urgent and, yes, truly exhilarating.
"Carmen Jones" was Hammerstein's attempt to translate opera for mainstream musical audiences, and while the project was an experiment, it was not an outrageous one: Bizet's music has a characteristic cherished on Broadway. It's -- don't gasp -- hummable. The effort to relocate opera to the real estate of Broadway continues to this day; next month, in fact, an eagerly awaited updating of Puccini's "La Boheme" by film and stage director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge") opens at New York's Broadway Theatre, where "Miss Saigon," also based on an opera -- "Madame Butterfly" -- had a protracted run.
Hammerstein had settled on the idea of transplanting the Spanish characters of Prosper Merimee's 1845 novel to the American South and, following in the footsteps of the Gershwins and their "Porgy and Bess," writing the musical for a black cast. The tragic love triangle, set against the backdrop of an Army base during World War II, now revolved around the scheming Carmen, a worker in a parachute factory. Her soldier-lover in Bizet's opera, Don Jose, becomes a GI, Joe, played here by Tom Randle. The bullfighter Escamillo, into whose arms she runs, is reborn as Husky Miller (Gregg Baker), a prizefighter. Micaela in the original becomes Joe's naive hometown sweetheart, Cindy Lou, portrayed by Blackwell.
The lyricist adapted Bizet's music, recycling Escamillo's "Toreador Song," for instance, as Husky's anthem, "Stan' Up and Fight," and recasting Carmen's "Habenera" as "Dat's Love." (The Kennedy Center performers played down the librettist's patronizing use of this questionable form of dialect.)
A concert was undoubtedly the appropriate vehicle for the venture; Hammerstein's story feels rather undercooked as tragedy. Like the 1954 movie version with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, the show has a faded quality. In fact, what this staging of "Carmen Jones" made you long for was a staging of . . . "Carmen."
In the Concert Hall, the challenge was clearly one of crowd control. The activities of more than 200 performers -- including choral singers from the Harlem group and the Howard University Choir -- had to be coordinated. Like a jumbo jet in which every seat is filled and the cargo hold is stuffed, "Carmen Jones" had some trouble achieving liftoff; the performers, perched on a platform behind the orchestra, filed in and out awkwardly on a central ramp, carrying their scripts, dragging music stands out of the way. On Friday night, the first performance, it was difficult at times to hear the dialogue and lyrics over the orchestra, more than 85 strong.
As the story unfolded, though, the emotive force of Bizet's music took hold. The orchestra, distinguished by moving solos on flute and oboe, combined with the singers for several exquisite arias and ensemble numbers, from an infectious "Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum" to a lovely quintet, "Whizzin' Away Along de Track." Despite the employment of the dancer Baayork Lee as director of the concert staging, however, there was virtually no choreography (though the Harlem choirboys were used to sweet effect as street urchins and boxing fans).
It was left to a pair of opera singers to take the evening to heights that had you desperate to dance in the aisles. Baker's entrance from the top of a staircase for his boxing aria, based on the renowned "Toreador Song" -- "Stand up and fight until you hear the bell. / Stand toe to toe. Trade blow for blow" -- conjured the thrills of a heavyweight encounter in Vegas. A Husky of massive proportion, he emerged as a kind of glowing advertisement for the American passion for packaging in bulk.
Blackwell, meanwhile, invested her second-act aria, "My Joe," with such technical acuity and depth of feeling that the effect on an audience was both endearing and magical. It was the kind of moment that would work on any stage, be it opera house or Broadway.
Randle imbued Joe with the poignant air of an average guy who gets entangled too deeply with a woman craftier than he, and Larry Marshall and Larry D. Hylton offered skillful comic contributions as Husky's self-protective handlers.
But "Carmen Jones" is defined chiefly by its Carmen, so this was a production of cool elegance rather than fireworks. Williams didn't try to compete with the powerhouse sound produced by her co-stars; she was more songbird than tornado. On occasion, this was a handicap, for she sometimes came across as the least passionate person onstage. Still, even if her Carmen didn't pull out all the stops, she remained a glamorous asset in a production that did.