For once the critics were in agreement. The story was repulsive, the characters depraved, the music uninspired. “Dull, obscure, vulgar, suffocating and contemptible,” La France musicale sneeringly summed up.
Georges Bizet was badly shaken. Carmen, the rising young composer’s sizzling musical adaptation of a best-selling blockbuster novella by Prosper Mérimée, opened to a singularly perplexed audience. This was not the light-hearted family entertainment ticket-holders were accustomed to at the venerable Opéra Comique. The resulting collapse in box office receipts was unnerving. Then came colleague and mentor Charles Gounod’s devastating charge, patently false but never recanted, that his former protégé had blatantly plagiarised one of his melodies.
Late in March 1875, scarcely three weeks after Carmen’s premiere, Bizet, shattered and depressed, haunted by the persistent insecurity that had plagued him all his life, retreated to the countryside. Visiting friends from Paris were shocked by his growing frailty and failing appetite for life. Two heart attacks soon followed. In early May he was dead. He was 36.
Rarely in the history of artistic reappraisal does the past seem crueller or sweeping snap judgements more unjust.
Striking bright new sparks off its decade-old production of Bizet’s indestructible masterpiece, the Canadian Opera Company sets the Four Seasons Centre stage ablaze with a brilliant rekindled Carmen, clear-eyed, focused and vibrant. Directed by indie opera architect Joel Ivany, the explosive chronicle of passion and rebellion achieves the theatrical equivalent of spontaneous combustion.
Ironically, for all its energy, the bulk of this Carmen’s welcome renewal is driven by a refreshing determination to allow the work to speak for itself.
The abiding tale of the murder of a hot-blooded gypsy by her jealous lover, an army deserter turned outlaw, is rendered with a minimum of tinkering to the durable underpinnings of Bizet’s cherished classic. Timeframe, although shifted from 19th century Andalusia to an unspecified banana republic circa 1950, centers the action in a decidedly period context. Sets from 2005 by Michael Yeargan, the same shabby Latin American capital perpetually wilting in the sun, the desolate, eerily abstracted gypsy lair, shadowy and sinister, are brought to life. Co-librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s spectacularly oversized yarn is allowed to unfold in all its high-definition colour. The appeal to our eternal love of breathless story-telling, so human and so compelling, is irresistible. Ivany wisely steps back and lets the action flow.
There are countless intellectual paths to Carmen’s narrative core, all of them well-explored by opera commentators over the years. A cry for emancipation, social and sexual, male and female. A plea for minority rights. A profile of sociopathy. An exploration of free will. All routes to deeper meaning are sound. None of them are singularly satisfying. Carmen is, in essence, a number opera, a succession of showpiece arias and accompanied recitatives interspersed, in true opéra comique fashion, with snatches of spoken dialogue. Meilhac and Halévy’s endlessly boisterous saga is similarly more patchwork than pattern.
Carmen is a totality, a churning mix of romance and adventure, comedy and tragedy. Characters steadfastly resist simple classification, protagonist, villain, prisoner, free spirit. Carmen is a gypsy outsider but aspires to social status as superstar toreador Escamillo’s partner. Don José is insubordinate and disloyal as a soldier but a determined, committed bandit. Michaela may be a centre of purity and goodness but she is a captive of her loneliness and isolation.
Love on fire, hearts in flames, Carmen mesmerizes. With his lively, coherent blocking and resonant staging, Ivany, seamlessly partnered by lighting designer Jason Hand’s evocative naturalism, thrusts us body and soul into Bizet’s radiant world. Assembled into a playful rank and file on the extreme edge of the Four Seasons Centre stage, an entire battalion of petits soldats marches straight into our affections. The composer’s riotous Act IV Quadrille becomes an uproarious procession through the auditorium, street vendors hawking fans and programs, oranges and toys at the bullfight. We are there, sweating in the arena, clapping and cheering as a parade of strutting toreros makes a flashy entrance.
Magical moments. More enchantment awaits.
Scheduled to appear on alternate showdays, as do many of the other principals during the course of the production’s extended run, mezzo soprano Anita Rachvelishvili invests the opera’s proud, ferociously independent title character with a pronounced streak of anti-heroism. This is a cunning Carmen, author of her own agenda, haughty, impulsive, fundamentally indifferent to men, less flirty femme fatale than fighter for her own freedom. Rachvelishvili commands her every scene, singing with supreme confidence, her sultry, captivating instrument superbly well-tuned to Bizet’s sublime score. Her seductive Près des ramparts de Séville, the always eagerly anticipated seguidilla that closes Act I, is as assertive as it is slinky.
Singing Don José, tenor Russell Thomas greatly impresses, vividly transitioning from failed son and soldier to reckless desperado. His performance a volatile mix of euphoria and melancholy, his voice surging with runaway emotion, the fine American soloist clearly exalts in the role. His moody corporal’s violent swing from despondency to elation to murder assumes a terrible air of inevitability. Singing Bizet’s glorious Act II aria La fleur que tu m’avais jetée, Thomas electrifies as Don José surrenders utterly to the power of love, a raw, alien sentiment he neither understands or can control.
COC Ensemble Company graduate Simone Osborne is a deeply moving Micaëla, a shy, lonely child-woman, innocent and devout, all but overlooked by those around her. In a voice charged with poignancy, spotlit on a darkened stage, the much in-demand singer actor soars in the exquisite Act III anthem, Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante, a plea to God for protection. It is the wilderness of her secret love for Don José that Micaëla fears, not the forlorn gypsy hideout referenced in her aria. Her tenderness and caring will never be reciprocated. Quick to seize the metaphor, Osborne transforms the conceit into wrenching emotion, her bright, angelic soprano ascending on currents of anguished prayer.
Christian Van Horn is the strutting, self-adoring toreador, Escamillo, his heroic bass-baritone glowing with clever comic notes of self-deprecation, his over-the-top stage antics brimming with caricature. The Toreador Song has seldom seemed quite so tongue-in-cheek.
Sasha Djihanian and Charlotte Burrage are Carmen’s fellow gypsy conspirators, flouncy Frasquita and Mercédès. Ian MacNeil and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure are shady smugglers Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado. Alain Coulombe is Don José’s commander, the world weary Lieutenant Zuniga.
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, partnered in Act I by young members of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, turn in dazzling performances, brilliantly animating Bizet’s countless rousing mass ensembles.
Conducting the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, visiting maestro Paolo Carignani leads with firm, no-nonsense assurance, foregoing the customary pre-curtain nod to the audience, cracking on headlong into Carmen’s rollicking overture. Tempi are crisp but never rushed, harmonies rich, melodies sensuous. The opera’s gorgeously expressive entr’actes, three priceless musical jewels, are conveyed with great sensitivity and attention to detail.
Despite, or perhaps more reasonably because of, its boundless popularity, Carmen can sometimes feel clichéd. With director Joel Ivany’s current incendiary remounting of Bizet’s verismo classic, the Canadian Opera Company banishes any hint of weariness. This production thrills.