Splatters of graffiti still adorn the weathered walls of the bullring. Hawkers still peddle souvenirs at the gates. The cheap seats are still in the upper unshaded sections, the Sol. The blistering sun is as relentless as ever. The corrida has resumed. The local cigarette factory is still in business. Everyone, it seems, is smoking. A detachment of red-shirted Guarda still keeps a sharp eye on passersby outside their barracks. Street urchins still mimic the daily parade of recruits up and down the main street. Lillas Pastia is still the sketchiest tavern in town. Smuggling is still a booming trade. Knife fights are an everyday occurrence. Life goes on.
Like La Carmencitta, we survive, neither nobly nor unscathed. Publicly confessed or not, the past two years have had a lasting impact on our communal psyche. The loss of innocence, the sharpening of instincts, the whirlpool of emotion — joy and heartbreak, sorrow and relief — all that we have experienced and learned collects deep inside us, locked down and isolated.
Briskly sweeping up the curtain, the Canadian Opera Company unveils a Carmen of hugely liberating proportions, a meticulous, unapologetic remount of director Joel Ivany’s boundlessly inventive 2016 production — itself an echo of Mark Lamos’ eye-catching, though considerably far less audience-inclusive staging from 2005. Bizet is gloriously reborn, abiding and familiar and yet strangely transformed in this, the COC’s latest iteration. Brighter somehow, more dazzling, the music richer, the singing more embracing, the art design more resonant. All is brilliance and blazing sunlight — the shadows denser, darker, more intense. Suddenly, with a rush of recognition, we are released from ourselves if only for a few precious hours.
There are countless paths to Carmen’s conceptual core, all of them well-explored by succeeding generations of critics during the virtual century and a half since Bizet’s sizzling verismo classic premiered — to almost inconceivably hostile reviews as it happened — at the Opéra Comique in Paris. A cry for freedom, social and sexual. A plea for minority rights. A profile of sociopathy. A theatrical treatise on free will. All interpretations are valid to some extent. None of them feel wholly adequate. Carmen is fundamentally a number opera, an almost bottomless wellspring of showstopping arias and accompanied recitatives interspersed, in best music theatre fashion, with snatches of spoken dialogue. Story is starkly episodic. Narrative unrolls in visceral fits and snatches. To search for a single source of overarching subtext is largely pointless.
Timeframe, although shifted by the originating COC creative team from 19th century Andalusia to simmering 1930s pre-revolutionary Cuba, drips with atmosphere. Iberian place names frequently invoked by librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy are regularly mirrored in any number of Spanish-speaking locales throughout Latin America, the historic Caribbean island signposting more than its fair share. Stage reference to Gibraltar, every ambitious smuggler’s fabled El Dorado, becomes, with the application of admittedly more than a little imagination, whispered code for Miami. The Roma, prevailing focus of dramatic attention in Carmen, have an undocumented history of comings and goings by boat to Cuba in some ethnographic accounts. The collective perspective is as intriguing as it is original. Ivany wisely admits every ray of sunshine, every wisp of menace, unearthing added colour and vitality, burrowing into the opera’s lush theatrical landscape with great resourcefulness and enthusiasm.
Mesmerized by designer Jason Hand’s superbly evocative lighting, helplessly swept away by originating designer Michael Yeargan’s riveting panoramic sets — a bustling street scene, a moonlit square, a mountain hideout, the Plaza de Toros — we are flung body and soul into the churning mix of passion and adventure, laughter and violence that is Bizet’s irresistible masterpiece.
Assembled into a playful rank and file on the extreme edge of the Four Seasons Centre’s prodigious stage, an entire troop 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 programs and toys, toreros and banderilleros and picadores all strutting past. We are there, sweating in the arena, clapping and cheering, as the parade sweeps by, the matador preening and posing.
Appearing as Bizet’s fatally beguiling heroine on opening night, Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges delivers a sleek, slinky Carmen, sensuous and alluring, her deep, throaty vibrato laden with suggestiveness. More femme fatale than freedom fighter, armed with a dangerous array of alluring weapons of romance, Bridges seduces the spotlight rather than commands it — confidant, actorly, vocally magisterial. Her rumbly, earthy Habanera is strikingly very much her own. Montreal-based soloist Rihab Chaleb shares the role for three performances later in the run.
Singing the principal male role, failed son and soldier turned desperado, frenzied lover of Carmen, the hapless Don José, Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente utterly triumphs in an electrifying performance ringing with tragedy, keenly incisive, enduringly human. Battered by failure, abandoned to his demons, Puente staggers down the house left aisle, haunted and alone, emotionally incapacitated, sending the theatrical fourth wall toppling. It is a moment of immense power. Bizet’s profoundly moving evocation of lost love, La fleur que tu m’avais jetée, is given heartbreakingly poignant voice.
Micaëla — reluctant emissary from Don José’s ailing mother, resident voice of conscience, — as inhabited by soprano Joyce El-Khoury, reveals the character framed by innocence and pathos, the singer’s exquisite rendition of the plaintive Act III anthem, Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvate, a soaring appeal for divine providence, a highlight of the evening. Anna-Sophie Neher appears in the second cast.
Baritone Lucas Meachem is the appropriately outrageous, ego-inflated, self-adoring matador, Escamillo. Allons! En garde! Gregory Dahl shares for two performances at the end of the month. Soprano Arianne Cossette and mezzo Alex Hetherington are flouncy Roma conspirators, Frasquita and Mercédès, their ripply, tripping comic trio with friend Carmen, Quant au douanier, c’est notre affaire, a genuine delight. Baritone Jonah Spungin and tenor Jean-Philippe Lazure are slick, slippery scoundrels, Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado. Bass Alain Coulombe is the weary overseer of law and order, Captain Zuniga. Baritone Alex Halliday is the incorrigible Corporal Moralès.
Visiting conductor Jacques Lacombe leads the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra in an unexpectedly objective reading of Bizet’s shining, heartfelt score, delivering a thoughtful, cool-headed rendering of the composer’s sweeping harmonies.
Appearing in any number of personas — townsfolk, Roma, streetkids — the Canadian Opera Company Chorus, partnered in Act I by a fine, irrepressibly energetic ensemble of young singer actors drawn from the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, are, quite simply, magnificent.
A Carmen for our times. A swelling, restorative Carmen. Ivany and company recharge us.