LSU’s Carmen emphasizes tragic story

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLANDCarmen, played by Ashley Dixon, left, and Lilla Pastia, played by Natalie Logan, rehearse a scene from LSU Opera's La Tragedie de Carmen.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLANDCarmen, played by Ashley Dixon, left, and Lilla Pastia, played by Natalie Logan, rehearse a scene from LSU Opera's La Tragedie de Carmen.

Call it the compact version of Carmen, where all pageantry has been stripped away to expose the bare essentials.

Peter Brook believed that was the most important part of French composer Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera.

“He went back to the Prosper Merimee’s original novel,” Dugg McDonough said. “He thought the story was most important.”

So, Brook collaborated with Marius Constant and Jean-Claude Carriere in creating La Tragedie de Carmen. Brook is a British theater and film director who has been based in France since the early 1970s. Constant is a French composer and conductor, and Carriere is a screenwriter and actor.

The three created La Tragedie de Carmen, which made its 1981 debut in the Viviane Beaumont Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center.

That’s where McDonough first saw the production, and the LSU Opera’s production on Friday and Sunday, Nov. 16 and 18, in the Claude L. Shaver Theatre, will mark the fourth time McDonough has staged the show.

McDonough is an associate professor in the LSU School of Music and director of the LSU Opera.

He likes this version of Carmen because it does, indeed, offer the essentials in a smaller production.

Carmen is still the fiery gypsy.

And the naive soldier Don Jose still abandons his childhood sweetheart and military duty for her.

He still loses her love to the glamorous toreador Escamillo. And, yes, Carmen dies in the end, stabbed by Jose in a jealous rage.

All the key songs are there, including the “Overture.” Now, if audience members aren’t familiar with the opera, surely they will recognize the Carmen “Overture.” It’s been used in commercials, television programs and every time the Bad News Bears take the baseball field.

But the “Overture” doesn’t really belong to the Bears. It’s Carmen’s, and it will be performed when she plays out her story on the rake stage borrowed from the New Orleans Opera Association.

“The last time we performed this opera, work was being done on the Shaver Theatre and the Music and Dramatic Arts Building,” McDonough said “We were in the little black box theater in Hatcher Hall, and the audience was in the round.”

The venue was good, because the stage was flat, and the audience was looking down on the action.

“For this, I thought I’d use the rake stage, so the audience could see everything that is happening,” McDonough said.

Rake stages were used in English theater in past eras. They are sloped upward away from the audience, improving the view.

Plans are for the stage to be backed by a screen, but that may change.

“I saw a production in Paris that just left the back stage open,” McDonough said. “I like that idea, so we may lean toward that.”

This would really play well into this theme of bare essentials.

Nothing is fancy here; not even the stage’s brick wall. It’s all about the story, characters and music.

Carmen is portrayed by Ashley Dixon, who was last seen as Cinderella in the LSU Opera’s spring 2012 production of Gioachino Antonio Rossini’s La Cenerentola. She is a senior from Peach Tree City, Ga., majoring in vocal performance, and she jumped at the chance to audition for this role.

“I knew I wanted to play Carmen some time in my life,” she said.

“I’m thrilled that I have the chance to play her now.”

Carmen definitely is an intense character, someone who wields great psychological and emotional power.

“The role has really opened my eyes to a lot of things,” Dixon said.

“I would never do the things she does, so it has really expanded my acting skills. By the time rehearsal is done, I’m emotionally spent.”

And in the end, watch for Don Jose’s dagger.

Oh come on, this isn’t giving anything away. Carmen is as legendary as it is classic, and it’s a known fact that death is her fate.

Just as it was during this particular rehearsal, when McDonough guided Dixon and Ben Klaus, who plays Jose, through the death scene for the first time.

The knife went up, and Carmen collapsed.

“This is the greatest scene in opera,” McDonough said.

The players once again took their spots and repeated the scene.

And McDonough is right. It is the greatest.