VANCOUVER OPERA: THE TIMELESS INTRIGUE OF BIZET'S ‘CARMEN’

Georges Bizet, Carmen, Kate Aldrich (Carmen), Richard Troxell (Don José), Morgan Smith (Escamillo), Marianne Fiset (Micaëla),  Thomas Goerz (Zuniga),  Aaron Durand (Le Dancaïre),  Rocco Rupolo (Le Remendado), Caitlin Wood (Frasquita), Laurelle Jade Froese (Mercédès), Zachary Read (Moralès);  conducted by Jacques Lacombe, directed by Joel Ivany, Queen Elizabeth Theater, October 4, 2014

 ‘Oh dear,’ we say, ‘another Carmen.’ But then we go and are electrified all over again. What gives Carmen this enduring power? First, it is a happy conjunction of a compelling story and compelling music. The story is flesh and blood, dance and song, sex and violence and death, all made vibrantly real through the music, with its ravishing tunes, rich harmonies, forceful rhythms, and superb orchestration. Carmen is, as Nietzsche said, Mediterranean, exuding a kind of irresistible vitality. And it’s not just that the music is exceptional: it’s that it’s aimed, so brilliantly, at characterization—of people and place—and at telling the story.

The two principal characters—Carmen and Don José—how different they are, what disparate worlds they occupy, and how the music expresses this variance! She’s a fast track and he a slow runner. He’s a small-town boy, straightforward and rule abiding. He belongs in a barracks, where everything is done by the book and you are told how to live. That’s the world he understands. And that’s how he loves and wants love. He finds Carmen wildly exciting, yes, but he wishes to tame her, to render love safe. He wishes to idealize her so that she doesn’t threaten—a kind of seductive Micaëla. He’s all straight lines and right angles, nothing curved or oblique. And his music conveys this perfectly. It’s diatonic, forthright and on the up and up, its rhythms basic and straightforward.

But listen to Carmen’s music, its sliding chromatics, its twists and turns, lithe, elusive, erotic.  She’s a free spirit, untrammeled by constraint, who loves quickly and tires of love quickly, and then unapologetically moves on. Her music is rhythmically thrilling, conveying her sexual magnetism. Everything evokes a sense of local colour and the exotic otherness of the gypsy to the straight-laced, buttoned-up, diatonic mother’s boy.

 Kate Aldrich and Richard Troxell

Kate Aldrich and Richard Troxell

Carmen and Don José are developing characters: Don José from a smitten young man stolen from a ‘good’ woman by a ‘bad’ to a pathetic obsessive who can’t let go. Carmen moves from the sensual vamp of the first two acts to the disturbed and angry woman of Act 3 and the frightened but courageous woman of Act 4. Carmen’s is the tougher role. Anger, fear, and resolve are hard enough to play convincingly, but genuine sultriness is natural to the body and can’t be faked.

Kate Aldrich is an excellent singer and actress. She possesses a rich mezzo voice that satisfies throughout the range. In Acts 3 and 4 she was especially strong. Her contempt for Don José was convincing, and her mixture of fear, courage, and fatalism in Act 4 were forcefully communicated. The card scene was powerful, as Ms. Aldrich sang thrillingly in the low register, conveying her sense of approaching fate. Despite her strong singing and acting, however, her sensuality did not convince; the body language wasn’t quite there, even with her strut. And there was entirely too much shoving about of men. On the whole, however, it was a fine performance throughout and, especially in the last two acts, a riveting one.

 Morgan Smith

Morgan Smith

Richard Troxell’s Don José lacked stage assurance initially but became more convincing as the opera progressed. His voice started thin, especially in duet with Micaëla, where the unevenness in dynamics did not show him to best advantage. Nonetheless, he opened out in the second-act flower song, which he sang very sweetly. His strongest accomplishment lay in portraying Don José’s deterioration; in the last act he fully occupied the character, conveying his dangerous obsessiveness in a way that was absolutely chilling.

Joel Ivany’s production got off to a shaky start, but improved as it progressed. The opening was lackluster and a little stagey, no one particularly convincing in a crowd supposedly enjoying an outing in the square. Nor did the entrance of the women from the cigarette factory make much of a splash; you wonder what the men made all the fuss about! Act 2 at Lillas Pastia’s proved more successful, with movement motivated by telling interactions, giving a better flow. The fight between Don José and Zuniga, however, left something to be desired. When will we stop seeing people clap their hands in front of someone else’s face to represent a blow? Acts 3 and 4 were better still, with Act 4 excellent. The bullring figures emerging from the back of the auditorium, watched excitedly by the crowd on stage facing front, delighted the audience. During the fight itself, every movement of Carmen and Don José made emotional sense, the scene imbued with menace, and courage in the face of complete unreason.

Helping this scene was the stunning set, with the upstage stands and stadium fans visible in profile, beneath which the last phase of the ill-fated ‘bullfight’ between the principals played out. The sets of Michael Yeargan and Camellia Koo were excellent throughout, with effective lighting by Jason Hand, providing élan to the production.

François St-Aubin’s costumes were colourful, reflecting Franco's Spain in the 1930's and 40's. Carmen’s costumes appeared thematic, with red for passion in Act 2 and white in Act 4 for—what? Loss of passion?  A contrast with the darkness of Don José?  A ‘pure’ start with Escamillo?  Whatever it was, it felt right and was effective. However, Carmen’s dress in Act 1 made little sense to me, as it was too bland for the sensual figure we wanted to see. And Escamillo, in his grand entrance, lacked a toreador’s elegant sex appeal in his somewhat absurd cowpoke outfit. On the other hand, his costume in the last act was splendid and suited that occasion to the ground. Generally, the colours of the costumes echoed the vibrancy of the opera and made a genuine contribution.  

 Conductor Jacques Lacombe

Conductor Jacques Lacombe

Regarding the other members of the cast, Marianne Fiset as Micaëla was excellent, with a clear, bright, and well-projected soprano voice. She also knew when to sing piano. She acted well and made a compelling figure on stage. Morgan Smith as Escamillo lacked the macho swagger demanded by the role. Nonetheless, he sang well, though his big scene in Act 2 was marred by his placing mid-stage in such a way that his voice did not project. At first, I thought he was weak-voiced, but this proved not to be the case.  In his scene in the mountains with Don José, particularly, his voice was stronger and his character well focused.

Zachary Read was a good Moralès and Thomas Goerz as Zuniga sang and acted well. Aaron Durand and Rocco Rupolo as Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado made characterful smugglers. Caitlin Wood and Laurelle Jade Froese were excellent as Frasquita and Mercédès, singing with verve and great stage presence.

But the real hero of Carmen is the music. The choruses were finely focused, with the children showing gratifying animation. Kudos to Leslie Dala and Kynza Tyrrell! The orchestra was strong and expertly conducted by Jacques Lacombe, who brought out the energy and refinement of the score. The tempi felt perfect. In his hands the entr’actes were characterful and the orchestra proved a real support to the singers—chorus and soloists—in both piano and forte passages. This set the seal on an altogether quite successful Vancouver Opera production of Bizet’s timeless masterpiece.

© Harvey de Roo 2014

THE OPERA EXPERIENCE