Attention to detail manages to bring fresh perspectives to a classic
October 20th, 2022 | Four Seasons for the Performing Arts | Toronto
BY DR. JANE FORNER
The Canadian Opera Company (COC) revival of their Carmen production presents a captivating performance, offering a superb ensemble that brought real emotional energy to the canonic opera. Starring as the ill-fated central couple (Carmen and Don José), Rihab Chaieb and Marcelo Puente brought a convincing flair for sensitive acting and vocal flexibility. This was complemented by a well-rounded supporting cast and chorus and a lively orchestra under Jacques Lacombe’s baton, who consistently brought out subtle contrasts in colour and tempo.
After a storming prélude, everything came together stronger with each act, gaining as it went along. By the end of Act II, the ensemble had blossomed, offering a depth that had been lacking a little at the start. The children’s chorus, for instance, were very sweet, but too well-behaved – lacking a little in the adorably chaotic energy that “street urchins” are bound to provide. After their excellently choreographed line-march at the front of the stage, they somewhat meekly surrounded the adults. Whereas the women’s factory fight fizzled with confrontation, the children weren’t quite bothersome enough. Then again, I am biassed from happy memories of my first operatic experience, which, as for many singers, was being in the children’s chorus in a production of Carmen, in my case at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, England, with West Riding Opera, when we would run around the actual streets to smear ourselves with mud and moss as a prelude to causing often genuinely violent havoc on the stage – thoughts and prayers to all operatic chaperones the world over. Especially well-controlled on their entrance in Act I, the choeur des cigarières impressed: Lacombe took the 3/8 andantino slower than expected, yielding a mesmerising effect from the chorus who presented a striking control on Bizet’s seductive ascending lines, mimicking the swirling of rising smoke that entrances them (la fumée qui vers les cieux monte) just as the soldiers fixate, voyeuristically, on the women. As an aside, I was curious about the decision to translate bohémien[ne] as “Romani” throughout. To be sure, what has typically been used in English is generally considered an offensive slur. I wondered if this has become common practice, rather than simply using the Anglicised “bohemian,” though the latter wouldn’t capture the more multifaceted implications of the French. I won’t recount here the long historical rabbit-hole I descended down over the past week tracing the etymologies and nineteenth-century literary uses in both languages. However, it does call attention to the politics of translation that we might not always think about as audiences, but which those in the surtitle (and musicology) game confront regularly. Regardless, it’s a welcome change of direction – it’s certainly not my experience that omitting “gypsies” altogether has become mainstream (I noted the continued use in the Met Opera’s 2019 Carmen, for example), but it is certainly a topic that would benefit from further consideration.
Chaieb’s “Habañera” was confident and assured, although even more rubato would have been welcome at times. It struck me as really quite a casual scene, staged to downplay rather than emphasise any seductive implications, with Carmen positioned very much among the crowd of cigarières rather than distinct from them; there are no excesses of choreography, and Don José is not spotlighted (figuratively speaking) as the “recipient” of her advances. Productions quite often stage it like that, similarly to Musetta’s “Quando m’en vo” in La bohème – as a diva’s sensual showstopper, where surrounding action pauses and all focus is on the female character’s body and voice – but that tends to misread the context of Carmen’s song and dance here, as Susan McClary points out in her classic study of the opera:
Although a few soldiers look on, the women do not dance for their benefit: they are intruders, tolerated only because of the power they wield. Consequently, when Carmen enters it is not as a femme fatale, but as a member of this community… Unfortunately, Don José witnesses her dance and systematically misreads all its signs. (1992, 144)
I found Chaieb’s acting captivating throughout, but especially so in portraying the nuances of Carmen’s emotions, her signature mix of confidence and fiercely guarded sensitivity that causes her to feel love, betrayal, and jealousy so deeply. In the séguedille, she did a good job of coming across simultaneously bored and sexy – again, like in the “Habañera”, not an overblown performance, preferring to play with the elasticity of Carmen’s alternately scale-like and disjunct melodies. At times I simply wanted more volume and heft behind the sound, but as Act II progressed, this developed to match Puente’s strong tenor, whose powerful and rich voice impressed consistently, particularly shining in the Act III finale. As was the case with several of the cast, I raised a slight eyebrow at some of the French diction in the spoken dialogue, but that aside, Puente gave a splendid performance. The word that was at the front of my mind throughout the evening and in the days following was realistic – not operatic verismo, but that Chaieb and Puente suggested an authentic couple in turmoil; their duet at the culmination of the second act was deeply moving. I enjoyed Joyce El-Khoury’s Micaëla, finding her a stronger presence that didn’t play too much into the stereotype of the meek, virtuous country girl, though vocally she shone much more in the latter half, receiving deservedly rapturous applause for her rendition of the Act III aria (Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante). Alain Coulombe was a convincing and solid Zuniga, while replacing Arianne Cosette, Midori Marsh absolutely sparkled as an energetic and playful Frasquita, her high notes ringing especially well through busy textures with a crystalline timbre, and she showed an impressive control and power that brought this secondary role alive. Along with Queen Hezumuryango, replacing Alex Hetherington as Mercédès with equal aplomb, the two made a delightful pair onstage, and I hope to see a lot more of them both in the future.
A memorable highlight was Lucas Meachem’s almost parodic performance as Escamillo – a wonderfully funny stage presence that, after a while, had the audience laughing even at the faintest strains of the Toreador March, which ended up functioning as a kind of comic leitmotif (that is, up until its haunting echo as the chorus sings while Carmen is stabbed). His entrance in Act II was a suitable nod to the 1930s Hollywood associations of the production, though sauntering onstage amid adoring fans in sunglasses and a glittering jacket, I would have placed him a couple of decades later, more as Elvis than an off-duty Toreador; indeed, it’s only in Act IV as he entered for the bullfight that he really took on the traditional matador guise. I could have done with far fewer blinding camera flashes in the café scenes, though – the first minute or two achieved the desired impression of paparazzi adulation, after which it became more agonising than effective. Meachem offered a self-satirising performance of the macho tropes that dominate in Carmen, and swagger was complemented by rich and assured singing throughout. Perhaps a little more attention could have been paid to stagecraft – especially given the dramatic weight that both Puente and Meachem lent to their characters throughout, their “duel” was underwhelming, Don José’s knife seeming more appropriate for peeling potatoes than stabbing… I found the second and fourth Acts the most impressive from a design perspective, particularly the attention to small details in Act II, where some non-singing roles at the beginning weren’t just plonked anywhere on stage as decoration but placed strategically – a woman languishing in a dark alley in the corner, lit only by a warm halo, an almost cinematic focus which helped to bring the whole scene to life. I did wonder about the setting, however: not being already familiar with the COC’s production, I was confident after a while that it was set in roughly the 1920s or 1930s – it’s all in the hats! – but it struck me as odd that there was no mention or discussion of this in the program. Moreover, I certainly didn’t pick up on the Cuban setting; a pre-performance video with Joyce El-Khoury (singing Micaëla) on the COC website offered some explanations, but I wouldn’t say there was all that much that screamed Cuba rather than Seville or Andalucía. The stage screen, its array of marbled warm colours imitating something between faded walls of once-grand golden palacios and a Rothko painting, was completed with graffiti in its lower segment, but this modern touch seemed out of place; when the graffiti was transferred to the stage itself in Act IV – adorning the walls of the bullring – it was good to see it had some use, but it implied an urban grittiness that didn’t match the rest of the production aesthetic. Act IV brought a juxtaposition of spectacle and starkly effective simplicity; the former, from the staggered procession of the chorus – as city folk, toreadors and their assistants – through the audience, eventually forming a cheery crowd. Sitting quite far forward in the stalls, and focused on the jolliness on stage, I didn’t notice, until my seatmate nudged me, that Don José was flailing around in the aisle right beside us. Putting actors among the audience can go either way, sometimes clichéd, but the decision here worked very well to place us inside Don José’s perspective: with the tableau disrupted, I watched the stage differently, seeing the effect of his possessive watching of Carmen more immediately (it helped, of course, that he was so physically close), if not quite through Don José’s eyes, because there isn’t all that much that could convince me – even in Puente’s moving portrayal – to sympathise with the predicament of his own making.
Contrasting with the excitement of the chorus’ appearance was the set design for the final act, whose undoubtedly impressive feats of construction were masked by a remarkably un-busy aesthetic, dominated by clean lines, bold streaks of colour, and bifurcated into two levels by way of a raked spectator stand that had the chorus high up and almost out of view watching the bullfight. I found this an extremely successful use of depth and line: filling up the dead air conversely created the impression of more space. Dividing the stage diagonally, moreover, meant that Carmen and Don José’s final altercation plays out underneath, away from anyone else to see. It’s a visible and painful reminder not only of domestic violence hidden out of sight behind closed doors, but also to society’s complicity. While this isn’t necessarily unique to this production, something about the fact that the chorus are not actually offstage but so visibly close to Carmen and Don José, sitting merely a few metres above, drives home their blissful ignorance of the crime going on below their feet, while the audience witnesses the full escalation throughout, from tugs and shoves during an arrest to Carmen tossed across a table, to a slap, to the inevitable ending. l’ll never not want Carmen to turn the tables on Don José at the end, particularly with my feminist musicology hat on, but failing that, this production’s attention to detail at key moments still manages to bring fresh perspectives to a classic.
Carmen is playing at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until November 4.
Dr Jane Forner is a musicologist and opera scholar researching the politics of gender, race, and language in contemporary opera. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto.
jforner20(at)gmail.com | Twitter: @FornerJane