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Theatre & Performance It might be time for the Canadian Opera Company’s Carmen to take a different shape

A scene from Carmen.

Michael Cooper

Title
Carmen
Company
Canadian Opera Company
Music
Georges Bizet
Director
Joel Ivany
Stars
Anita Rachvelishvili, Russell Thomas, Simone Osborne, Christian Van Horn
Venue
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
City
Toronto
Review Date
Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Georges Bizet's Carmen is so perfectly composed, so full of gorgeous melody and dramatically impeccable scenes, that, basically, if you play and sing all the notes, you're more or less guaranteed a hit.

The Canadian Opera Company's Carmen, which opened Tuesday night in Toronto, does considerably more than that, thanks to two stunning performances by its lead singers, but it could be so much more powerful and thrilling than it was.

It's time the COC retired this production of Carmen, which last appeared on the Four Seasons stage in 2010. It's a tribute to the excellence that general director Alexander Neef has consistently displayed at the COC over the past few years that the sets and costumes of this Carmen just don't make the grade. The costumes and props lead one to believe the show has been set in the early 20th century, but it's far from clear and more than a little confusing. The women in the cigar factory in Act 1 look right out of the 19th century in their dowdy smocks, but in front of them stroll other women in modern sundresses. Escamillo, the toreador, is pursued by photographers with big flash attachments, à la the 1930s. There's a jukebox at Lillas Pastia's. Somebody's using binoculars to watch the bullfight in Act 4. There's nothing wrong with any of these details, but they're inconsistent, and distracting.

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And the sets for the four acts hamper rather than advance the action. An enormous iron gate in Act 1 means that director Joel Ivany had only about a third of the stage to work with for Carmen's original entrance. Lillas Pastia's restaurant in Act 2 was dowdy and unremarkable. The Gypsy camp in Act 3 was more symbolic and surrealistic, with a giant hand featured, and the bullfight stands in Act 4, under which Carmen is eventually murdered, were pedestrian and bland.

What all this meant is that director Ivany and his cast were constantly working at a disadvantage as they attempted to put dramatic flesh on the bones of Carmen's superb music and not bad plot. The one time Ivany ignored his set completely, and had the bullfighting party that opens Act 4 make its way through the auditorium onto a crowded stage, was electric and exciting – the audience spontaneously clapping along with the music, a tremendous crackle in the air. Too often in previous scenes, at other places in the show, the crowd scenes seemed oddly uncrowded and static. For an opera awash in the colour and movement of fighting cigar-factory women, Gypsy encampments, toreadors and bullfights, this Carmen often seemed remarkably staid.

That changed, however, when Ivany staged the intense scenes between Carmen and her lover-turned-eventual-murderer, Don José. Ivany's real talent for presenting passion on stage, visceral and real, took off in both the Act 2 love scene between the two protagonists and their eventual confrontation in Act 4. That Carmen is an intimate personal drama as well as a sweep of colour and pageantry became agonizingly evident at those fine moments.

Of course, many of the quibbles about the staging of this Carmen were rendered somewhat irrelevant by the superb vocal and dramatic performances on stage, especially by Russell Thomas's Don José and Anita Rachvelishvili's Carmen. Simone Osborne was an effective if somewhat strident Micaëla and Christian Van Horn an appropriately preening Escamillo, but the evening firmly belonged to the two principals. Thomas was especially interesting in his portrayal of Don José, the soldier enticed by the seductive Carmen to leave his regiment and his wife-to-be, and to betray himself and his soul by deserting himself, so to speak. Thomas gave Don José a lot of strength – often he's played as a momma's boy betrayed by his genitals with one of Carmen's come-hither stares. Thomas, with his magnificent tenor voice and commanding stage presence, gave us a José more sure of himself at the beginning of the opera, and therefore more conscious of his degradation at it's end.

And Rachvelishvili's Carmen was equally interesting. There ought to be a law making it a punishable offence to swivel your hips, or reveal your seductive leg, or caress yourself while playing Carmen. If Carmen is nothing but a seductress, then most of the opera makes no sense – especially her courage in Act 4 and her love of freedom in Act 3. Carmen is about female agency, what female agency looked like given the crushing constraints of the late 19th century on the autonomy of women. If she's not a hero, the opera loses all power. Unfortunately, Rachvelishvili committed the swiveling-hips felony like they all do in her portrayal of Carmen, but it was in the way she sang the role, not acted it, that she was most brilliant. Her Carmen was sometimes very, very soft, sometimes fantastically powerful, sometimes monotonal in her resignation – and everything in between – providing an aural and musical portrait of a complex woman of depth. We could hear the complexity in the way she used her voice.

I would have liked a bit of Rachvelishvili's subtlety from the COC Orchestra, under the baton of Paolo Carignani. It's true that Bizet's score more closely resembles that of a Broadway show than a typical opera, with one hit tune and one gorgeous bit of incidental music following another, but that doesn't mean the score can't be approached as a complex musical one. It's both – a complex, harmonically challenging score, as well as one with one hit tune after another. It's the combination that gives it its brilliance.

This is not a bad Carmen. It has wonderful performances and takes you deep into the emotional heart of the doomed lovers, where moral judgments and easy answers are harder to come by. Maybe that's enough. But when Carmen returns to the COC, perhaps it will take a completely different shape. It is important enough both as an opera, a piece of theatre and a sociological litmus test, to be worth the extra effort.

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Carmen runs to May 15 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts in Toronto (coc.ca).

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