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Louis C.K. has a bit in which he notes how incredible it is that women continue to go out with men, given that the number one threat to women, and chief cause of injury and mayhem to them is, well, men. The number one threat to men? Heart disease.
So it’s worth remembering that in Carmen, the opera that made the femme fatale trope famous and launched a thousand James Bond villainesses, the real fatale character was a man, and the titular femme was his victim. In retrospect, Carmen’s cultural legacy shouldn’t have been that of the wicked seductress but rather the dorky unhinged stalker who doesn’t take rejection well. Indeed, that’s another stock opera character, albeit one who is generally presented as a tragic, rather than psychopathic, figure.
What eventually established Bizet’s 1875 opera as among the repertory’s most famous has a lot to do with the controversy it first kicked up, though that controversy had more to do with seeing women being openly sexual and smoking in public than being stabbed to death later. Thus there’s both a thrill and underlying grossness in watching Carmen flaunt her libido in Act 1, knowing what’s going to happen to her in Act 4, given the opera’s sympathetic portrayal of her killer and winking implication that she sort of had it coming.
But Carmen’s greatest liability isn’t that grossness but its over performance. It’s one of those operas for which the story and music are so familiar they’ve long lost any element of surprise, and which opera buffs go see primarily to compare how each new singer fills the title role. So it takes a terrific mezzo to make any Carmen memorable. Fortunately the Virginia Opera has one, Ginger Costa-Jackson, who seems to have done this 50 times before—-and, apparently, she has. Besides an appropriately deep register and beautiful, smoky intonation, she has acting chops too, embodying love, rage, playfulness, and an exaggerated bravado-masking-fear, all with an intense gaze and a wolf’s grin.
Costa-Jackson alone would have made the production, but there’s strong singing throughout. Dinyar Vania,as her obsessive suitor, Don José, has both a clear, precise tenor and the right look, sort of handsome and dopey at the same time, like David Schwimmer in Friends. Soprano Corinne Winters is equally impressive as Micaela, and even some of the supporting cast—-Andre Chang as a gypsy smuggler—-offer stout voices to smaller roles. Only Ryan Custer as Don José’s rival, the bullfighter Escamillo, lacks projection a bit during duets, though he hits the right marks in his “Toreador” aria.
The vocal talent is enough to gloss over some of the weirder aspects of the production, from the implausible fight scenes to the incongruous costumes—-how did Escamillo hike to the gypsies’ mountain hideout in dress shoes and a cravat? Why are some of the gypsies dressed like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars? For Carmen, the Virginia Opera teamed up Tazewell Thompson, who directed the pretty good Pearl Fishers, and John DeMain, who conducted the pretty bad Aida, though its shortcomings weren’t his fault. DeMain leads the orchestra in a jaunty, uptempo take on Bizet’s famous score, which is sometimes clipped but keeps the action humming. Thompson comes to opera from an accomplished theater background, which may be why Carmen has more of a Broadway feel to it, particularly the well-executed chorus scenes. Still, you’d think a theater guy would give you better choreographed fights.
But these are minor flaws. Overall, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable version of a familiar tale, for which the Virginia Opera didn’t push any boundaries. But with stellar vocals, capable direction, and great music, they didn’t have to. Carmen is a great feel-good opera with which to close out the Opera’s season, or about as feel-good as you can get watching, you know, a man murdering a woman because he got dumped.
Carmen closes on Sunday, April 13 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. In French with English surtitles. $48 – $98.
Photo: David A. Beloff