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The Virginia Opera opens its season with Bizet's sexy stunner, "Carmen."

Femme Fatale

It is seldom said, with any honesty, that opera is more exciting than life. Yet, Georges Bizet's "Carmen," especially the Virginia Opera's upcoming production, promises more excitement than you're probably used to, unless you already are a Spanish gypsy woman with a penchant for unraveling men's lives.

The Virginia Opera's upcoming "Carmen" is a perfect opera for beginners. You probably already know three of the tunes (the overture, the toreador song and the ultra-sexy "Habanera"). What you may not know is that Carmen is perhaps the grittiest, sexiest and, for opera, most forward-thinking piece in the entire oeuvre. It features a libretto that was widely misunderstood at its premiere at the Opera-Comicque in Paris in 1875 but consistently ranks as the best-loved opera among modern opera fans. What's more, you can't help but be drawn to the characters, and it's fun to watch people go slowly insane for a few hours.

"Carmen" is about a gypsy woman (mezzo-soprano Lanya Chianakas) who works in a cigar factory and who is arrested for assaulting one of her co-workers. Immediately upon arrest she seduces her captor, Don Jose (tenor Adam Klein), and convinces him to let her go. Don Jose's military career, not surprisingly, comes quickly to an end as he lands in prison for letting Carmen escape and, immediately upon his release, fights his commanding officer, who also happens to be in love with Carmen, for her love.

What's an ex-soldier in 19th-century Seville to do? Become a gypsy, of course. Don Jose joins Carmen and her friends in their travels through the mountains until - surprise! — Carmen tires of Don Jose in favor of the handsome bullfighter, Escamillo (baritone Samuel Mungo).

Peter Mark, Virginia Opera's general and artistic director, has especially fond memories of "Carmen." His first experience of "Carmen" was as a member of the children's chorus in the Metropolitan Opera's production. He says his love of the opera first stems from his infatuation with Risa Stevens as Carmen in that production. What's more, he promises that Richmonders will find Chianakas' rich voice, attractive temperament and complete abandon just as alluring.

Adam Klein, frequent principal with the Virginia Opera and former Don Jose with the New York City Opera's "Carmen," reprises that role in this production and assures opera-goers none of the stuffiness of your parent's opera. Virginia Opera, he says, puts on a gritty, tense and dramatic show that won't remind you of singers trying to walk through molasses for several hours. Rather, at the Carpenter Center you will find "an overwhelming set, a fresh production in which all of the possible drama is heightened, and singers who never tire of performing these roles."

What happens to Don Jose, Carmen and Escamillo? They get into it to a tragic end. Suffice it to say that for someone in this ménage death occurs. But you knew that — after all, this is opera.

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