Carmen, Compact and Compelling

The Lyric Opera of Virginia’s First Jewel Box Production Tells the Raw Story of This Popular Tragedy.

Anne Peterson

The most famous femme fatale in opera, her literally fatal attractions not staled nor withered but honed razor sharp by some 14 decades of practice, comes to Hampton Roads stripped down for action in the Lyric Opera of Virginia's first Jewel Box production.

Carmen—knife-wielding seducer, consort of cutthroat thieves and of smugglers, Georges Bizet's gypsy female flip side of Mozart's aristocratic Don Giovanni—gets an intense 90 minutes of stage fame in this condensation of her namesake tragic opera.

The Lyric Opera production offers music and story with nothing extraneous or decorative: 14 performers and four choreographed fights—a set that can shift from street scene to mountainous hideout, from factory to bullring—no intermission. (Stage director Lillian Groag and Lyric Opera founder Peter Mark both say this Carmen, with its world class cast of established international singers under Mark's baton, makes an ideal introduction to opera.)

LOV publicity describes its Jewel Box Operas as complete productions that are "shorter, more compact...artistically crafted from the most exquisite musical and dramatic 'jewels' (arias, ensembles, scenes) in each work."

Groag emphatically makes the point that this is not a "greatest hits" version, but rather "the raw story....pared down" to its "very fast tight and violent" essence: "a very tight suspenseful story...a shocking story," a 19th Century "love quadrangle" that could easily show up in 21st Century newspapers.

Dragoon Corporal Don José is charged with arresting Carmen for her knife attack on another woman, but she seduces him into helping her escape. After José's release from imprisonment for conniving in Carmen's flight, he and his superior officer Zuniga come to blows over Carmen.

José, now a "deserter and a wanted man," joins the gang of smugglers with whom Carmen is associated because he has nowhere else to go, but he's not really one of the gang, he's unwelcome, and Carmen—"she's all he has left"—has taken up with the bullfighter Escamillo.

Don José is now a "violent and desperate, desperate man...roaming the streets."

"It's really tragic what happens to him," Groag says. Don José realizes that he has sacrificed everything, not for love but for infatuation.

The tragedy is compounded because Carmen has, in the "very smart," charismatic bullfighter—Groag likens him to a celebrity athlete like Michael Jordan—found love for the first time. Having been sold at 13, she "despises all men" and has always "used men to get what she wants," but now a lover treats her like a lady.

Her triumph of the heart is short-lived. Carmen dies at Don Josés hand as an offstage crowd is heard celebrating Escamillo's victory in the bullring.

Music by Georges Bizet, text by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Lyric Opera of Virginia
Ferguson Center, Newport News, May 4 & 6 (757-594-8752)
Sandler Center, Virginia Beach, May 23 & 24 (757-385-2555)

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