Opera Review – Canadian Opera Company/Bizet’s Carmen

15-16-05-MC-D-0661Brilliant conducting by Italian maestro Paolo Carignani, coupled with the sensational singing of French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine as Carmen, and the passionate delivery of Canadian tenor David Pomeroy as Don José, make the COC’s production of Bizet’s warhorse worth the price of admission.

All, however, is not perfect.

Bizet’s Carmen can be a two-edged sword. Yes, the richly expressive music certainly tells you all you have to know about the story and the characters, but on the other hand, weak staging can scuttle the whole enterprise by not presenting a stage picture that equals the power of the score. For the same reason, Carmen is not an opera that can be saved by great singing and conducting alone. In other words, many Carmen productions turn out to be duds precisely because Bizet’s score is flawless.

Happily, the news about the current COC revival is mostly good, and in some cases, even great. What begins with an under-directed first act, and a ho-hum second act, becomes a stirring third act and a downright thrilling finale. I have a theory about this. The first two acts focus on Carmen, the last two on Don José. We all know that Carmen is a fiery seductive gypsy who is as tough as nails. The action writes itself. Her character never changes. It’s hard to be creative when the inevitability of the role is laid out like a road map.

On the other hand, Don José is like a loose cannon. His all-consuming jealousy creates excitement. Compared to Carmen’s certainty of conduct, Don José is a musical rogue replete with almost frightening mood swings. Thus, while Don José’s character can feed a stage director, Carmen’s character is limiting, almost stifling in terms of something new.

I also believe that the real love story is between Carmen and Escamillo. She feels a duty towards Don José because he went to prison for allowing her to escape. She even says as much in the libretto. The bond tying them together is gypsy honour, not real love, and by the beginning of the third act, Carmen is already tired of him. Great fodder for the tenor playing Don José to sink his teeth into, while Carmen sails serenely on.

15-16-05-MC-D-0511Giving young Canadian director Joel Ivany the task of staging Carmen is a smart idea. His whole background with his own company, Against the Grain Theatre, is one of breath-taking innovation. Nevertheless, even Ivany can’t rise out of the Carmen quagmire. First, he has inherited another director’s vision (updated to 1940s Cuba) with a set that confines the first act action to the lip of the stage. Fully two thirds of the stage, supposedly police headquarters, is not used. Secondly, he has fallen into the conventional trap of letting Carmen be sexy and Micaëla be bland. He misses obvious directorial clues like Manuelita’s cut face, courtesy of Carmen’s knife. Where’s the blood?

Ivany, who has proved in the past to be a very good purveyor of character, is saddled by clichés. There is no real communication between Don José and Micaëla. We never are able to trace the where and the how of Don José’s being drawn into Carmen’s snare. Suddenly, he just is, all of which makes the first act very unsatisfactory. Also there is no logic as to who carries stools on and off the stage, cigarette girls and passers-by both. When I’m noticing the movement of stools, there is a problem with the visuals. Mercifully, the second act with the lively scene at Lillas Pastia’s reprobate inn is marginally better, but everyone seems sleepwalking until Escamillo arrives.

It is in the third and fourth acts that Ivany finds his mojo. He pinpoints Don José’s troubled psyche and abject humiliation which are the cornerstone of the acts. We feel the pain (although Jason Hand’s lighting is so dark, we can scarcely see Carmen and her two friends reading their fortunetelling cards). And then, finally, a true Ivany innovation happens. The crowd waiting to go into the bullfight is gathered at the front of the stage. The hawkers come down the orchestra aisles first, followed by the cuadrilla (the bullfight parade) that includes chulos, banderilleros, matadors and picadors – building up to a frenzy, as the crowd waits for the adored torero Escamillo to appear with the now elegant Carmen at his side.

15-16-05-MC-D-0340What is so great about this staging is that the audience gets involved, totally engaged in fact, clapping to the music and even cheering with the crowd. Just the simple act of having the procession come through the audience injects such vibrancy and freshness into the mix. The pièce de resistance, however, is having a haggard, beaten Don José following the cuadrilla. When Mercédès and Frasquita warn Carmen that Don José is lurking about, she can look right out into the audience and see him. A stunning coup de théâtre.

The primo star of the evening is Maestro Carignani. This is the best conducted Carmen I have ever experienced. His marvellous detailing of the music is perfection. Even when the stage action is flagging, the music never does. For example, at the beginning of the second act, Carignani starts the music leading into the gypsy dance almost too slowly, but the build is beautiful in its construction, until finally the maestro unleashes a wild, tempestuous storm of music that must leave the singer/dancers breathless. Then there is the dramatic way Carignani brings in Carmen’s ominous death theme in the third act which highlights the way the maestro is able to isolate individual components while never losing sight of the whole. In short, Carignani’s rendering of Bizet’s score – a gift that takes the music apart while keeping it together – is one of the glories of this production.

Margaine has one of those juicy mezzo-soprano voices that commands the ear. Her output is amazingly strong throughout her whole tessitura with glorious notes both high and low. With sheer power, she sings everyone off the stage. Margaine is certainly able to play with nuance, but when she is able to go to full throttle, the mezzo-soprano delivers a knock-out punch. Her acting chops may be a little limited but she gamely puts herself through Carmen’s wiles, although one wishes she had a bit more oomph. (O, to hear Margaine in a bel canto role!)

Pomeroy is outstanding as Don José. While his first act is on the dreary side, he just grows from strength to strength throughout the opera. He is able to inject his robust Italianate tenor voice with unbelievable passion and desperation, and he doesn’t hold back when he reaches for the top. His Don José wears his heart on his sleeve, and by the end of the opera, when he is at his begging, pleading, whining worst, he is absolutely cringe worthy. In this cast, Pomeroy wins the singing/actor award.

Both Canadian soprano Karine Boucher as Micaëla and American baritone Zachary Nelson as Escamillo are a bit of a disappointment. On a good note, Boucher’s voice does not have the simpering soprano sweetness sometimes cast as Micaëla, who really does have a feisty side. Rather, her voice has an attractive smoky quality that speaks of inner fire, but her big third act aria seemed to be strained at the top and laboured everywhere else. Her non-characterization also made for a lacklustre presence. Boucher, however, is still a member of the COC Ensemble Studio, so these are early days. Ivany should have found a way to help her sharpen her character. For his part, Nelson is a terrific actor, but while he displays power at the top of his range, he lacks definition in his lower register. In comparison to the rest of the cast his voice just seems too light for the role. Escamillo needs a hearty baritone, and Nelson is not, in this production at least, a full-bodied meat and potatoes singer.

Smaller roles are deftly performed by current COC Ensemble Studio members. Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Burrage and soprano Sasha Djihanian, as Mercédès and Frasquita respectively, bring lively singing personalities to the stage. Djihanian’s clear voice soars while Burrage’s honey-coated voice soothes. On the male side, baritone Iain MacNeil as Le Dancaîre and tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Le Remendado display robust voices in the making. MacNeil in particular, is impressive with his fine even tone and commanding sound. It will be interesting to see where his voice takes him.

Two former COC Ensemble members also grace the stage. As Zuniga, veteran bass Alain Coulombe might be showing some quavering wear and tear, but he can still give a strong performance. Baritone Peter Barrett as Moralès is well-launched in his career, particularly at the Metropolitan Opera. He doesn’t have a lot to do, but what he does sing is big and bold. He’s definitely one to watch. As usual, the COC Chorus does a marvelous job, able to sing beautifully while transforming themselves into whatever is needed, be it police or smugglers, and kudos to chorus master Sandra Horst for that. The youngsters from the Canadian Chlldren’s Opera Company always bring zest to the stage. As for the production itself, the COC has opted for the 1875 Opéra-Comique version with spoken dialogue and not the later sung recits. It makes for a tightly controlled musical journey.

And finally, memo to the audience. Listen to the music in the first act because it is superb. The production comes into its own in the next three acts, and you will be glued to your seat by the end.

Carmen by Georges Bizet, conducted by Paolo Carignani, directed by Joel Ivany, Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Apr. 12 to May 15.