Things were very fiery this past Friday night at the GMU Center for the Arts as the Virginia Opera brings a new and exciting full-scale production of Bizet’s Carmen, one of the most renowned and certainly most dramatic operas in history, to the Fairfax establishment,
A four-Act work with a French libretto, but set in Seville, Spain with distinctly Spanish themes, Carmen was the most famous work of its French composer, Georges Bizet, who, sadly, did not live to see it become a hit after a lukewarm reception in Paris in 1875.
Set in Seville around the 1820s, the opera tells the story of the eponymous Carmen – or Carmencita, as is her nickname – a fiery, independent Gypsy woman who is both brazen and brave, and twirls men around her finger effortlessly with her wicked sense of humor. As a worker in a local cigarette factory, she flirts and sings with the local garrison troops who hang on her every word, each calling out for her to say they love them in turn. Caught unawares while on duty is the honorable soldier Don José, who, despite being well intentioned, falls under Carmen’s spell and becomes her lover. José is pulled along by the whims of Carmen that leads the two lovers into a powerful standoff in the final act of the opera.
The sultry Carmen is embodied with almost alarming likeness by the talented Mezzo-Soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson, making her main stage debut in this production. Fiery hardly begins to describe the volatile Carmen, who, as a notorious seductress, brazenly spreads and slaps her thighs while laughing at the besotted men hanging on to her every word. Ms. Costa-Jackson commands the attention of the audience as successfully as Carmen does the men surrounding her. Entering with the famous and provocative “Habanera” in Act I, Ms. Cost-Jackson’s mezzo voice is deep, powerful, and altogether perfect for expressing Carmen’s opinions about lust and love in the willful piece. Carmen is a different sort of leading lady compared to many operas that feature a stereotyped lovelorn heroine. Indeed, Carmen is the very definition of anti-hero, frustrating viewers and fellow characters alike with harmful words and choices but not necessarily maliciously intentioned.
Tenor Dinyar Vania depicts Carmen’s counterpart, the self-same José, the hapless and rather pitiable solider who is so clearly out of his element with Carmen and who is led astray by his passions for her. We as the audience see José’s hesitations, weaknesses, and the changes to his persona as he finds himself in increasingly undesirable situations as the opera progresses. Mr. Vania, impressively, brings the crucial element of humanity to this story line, which is what is intended of his character. Through the talents of both his acting and voice, Mr. Vania’s José expresses sorrow, anger, and passion in spades as he changes from an honorable soldier and son, to a deplorable and broken man driven to the most extreme desperation. Interestingly, many scholars argue that Don José is, in fact, intended to be the main character of Carmen, as it is he who changes most throughout the work and his fate that is of most interest to the audience. Mr. Vania’s tenor voice breaking sorrowfully across the line, ‘Tu ne m’aimes donc plus? [Then you don’t love me at all?]’ in the final aria certainly lends credence to that suggestion.
Ryan Kuster plays the bull runner Escamillo, a celebrity toreador who also falls in love with the spirited Carmen and vies for her affections opposite Don José. Kuster, a bass-baritone, leaps into the scene quite literally in Act 2, as he stands on a table to sing the famous “Toreador” aria. Kuster plays his character quite convincingly, with a panache and pomp that poor Don José does not possess.
Accompanying the powerful performances of the three leads – Ms. Costa-Jackson, Mr. Vania, and Mr. Kuster – are a handful of supporting characters that bring much-needed relief to the intensity of drama that marks most of the work. Corinne Winters portrays the innocent Micaëla – José’s friend and intended – in an equally innocent and clear-toned soprano voice that is a direct foil to Carmen’s sultry mezzo-soprano. Andre Chiang and David Blalock lit up laughs as Le Danclaire and Le Remendado, smuggler friends of Carmen’s who embody a mischievous compatriotism reminiscent of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
The impressive vocal performances serve only as a portion of the production, however, as the singers are supported by an equally talented creative team that features Conductor John DeMain and Director Tazewell Thompson. Additionally, Set and Costume Designers Donald Eastman and Merrily Murray-Walsh, respectively, frame the story and the characters very believably in sunny Seville with towering, elevated set pieces and a bright and colorful costume set appropriate to the times.
Carmen rounds off the Virginia Opera’s successful 2013-2014 season, which featured Mozart, Strauss, and Verdi, and they could not have picked a more appropriate work to ‘go out with a bang,’ as it were. The Virginia Opera’s production of Carmen lights up both stage and hearts with fervor, fire, passion, and tragedy, as befitting the very best of opera.
Carmen is performed in French with English supratitles.
Running Time – About three hours with with three 10-minute intermissions.
The Virginia Opera performs Carmen for one more performance on Sunday, April 13, at 2:00 PM at the GMU Center for the Arts – 4373 Mason Pond Drive, Fairfax VA. Tickets can be purchased online here, by phone at (888) 945-2468, or at the Center for the Arts’ box office.