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Virginia Opera’s colorful ‘Carmen’ fills the house in Fairfax

Written By | Apr 12, 2014

FAIRFAX CITY, Va., April 12, 2014 – The Virginia Opera brings its colorful production of George Bizet’s sparkling, tune-filled “Carmen” to George Mason University’s Center for the Arts this weekend.

Judging from the enthusiastic reception of the first performance here on Friday evening, the company’s current offering should prove a real crowd-pleaser for its final, Sunday matinee performance on April 13, a performance that wraps up this production’s four-city tour of Virginia.

The heart of Bizet’s opera is its eponymous heroine, the passionate, willful gypsy Carmen. Happily, astonishing young soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson is the heart of Virginia Opera’s production as well. Only 27 and not today’s typical conservatory product, she first sang at the Met at the tender age of 21. This weekend, she lights up the stage in Fairfax in a bigger-than-life portrayal of Bizet’s aggressive, self-reliant heroine.

Scoring Ms. Costa-Jackson for this production was a real coup for this company. A genuine triple threat, she’s an astoundingly accomplished vocalist and an extraordinary stage actress. And if that’s not enough, she can also dance with the greatest of ease.

The great majority of opera heroines are sopranos. But Carmen is a classic role for the deeper, more sultry mezzo-soprano voice. Deep and sultry Ms. Costa-Jackson’s voice most certainly is, full of smoke in the lower range but crackling with passion and fire as the range ascends. From her first appearance on stage, her Carmen dominates the proceedings from beginning to tragic end.

As Carmen’s hapless lover, Don José, tenor Dinyar Vania somehow was capable of producing real sympathy for perhaps the least sympathetic tenor hero in the world of opera. Unable to hold onto the lover-hungry Carmen for more than a few months, his passion descends into the pathetic, as Carmen is fully capable of moving on while he is not.

Mr. Vania brings off this transition well, with a strong, sturdy, yet increasingly uncertain delivery that matches the descent of his character.

Bass-baritone Ryan Kuster brought his hunky, cocksure portrayal of Escamillo, Bizet’s classic Toreador, to upset the dramatic apple cart in Act II. Just as José is gaining traction with Carmen, Escamillo appears and we already know where Carmen is headed next. His accomplished, dramatic vocal entrance in this act, along with his showy performance of Escamillo’s popular “Toreador” song, lights up the stage.

Mr. Kuster plays Escamillo as a self-confident showman who also displays a cool,  cynical approach to love. Setting his cap for Carmen in Act II, he actually tries to give the displaced José a bit friendly advice in Act III, realizing that even he, the great hero of the bull ring, will likewise be eventually discarded by the predatory Carmen. It’s a marvelous performance of this small yet key role.

In smaller roles, the supporting cast picked up the energy generated by the opera’s three principals, spinning of considerable energy of their own in the process. Kudos to soprano Corinne Winters who created an exquisitely lovely Micaela, the abandoned young woman tossed aside as José’s hapless former fiancée; and soprano Jeni Houser and mezzo Courtney Miller as Carmen’s rollicking female sidekicks.

Other minor characters contribute smartly to this excellent mix as well as does the Virginia Opera’s small but disciplined chorus.

The production, a simple yet colorful affair provided by the Sarasota Opera Association, worked surprisingly well. And the orchestra, under the able baton of John Demain, produced a big, rich sound for its size while also allowing room for the singers to shine.

Our only quibble with the production was the company’s choice to eliminate the sprightly children’s chorus from the opening act. That’s a delightful little set piece that adds considerably to the town square atmosphere of this act, and we missed it here, even though the director substituted a believable new Army recruit induction pantomime to go along with the music from the orchestra.

Perhaps the choice was due to budget constraints or the logistics of maintaining a children’s chorus throughout a four-city run. Happily, though, as we’ve indicated, we at least got to hear this bright, lively music.

The final performance of “Carmen” wraps up here Sunday afternoon, April 13 in Fairfax. See it if you can. It’s a great way to ring in the spring, and this cast is performing at its peak.

(The YouTube video below, produced by a Tidewater area TV station previews these performances and interviews the principal singers.)

Rating: *** ½ (3 and ½ our of 4 stars)

Tickets from $48 to $98. For tickets and information, call the Virginia Opera box office at 1.866.OPERA.VA, or visit the “Carmen” page on the GMU Center for the Arts web pages.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17