Review: Vancouver Opera’s Carmen a visceral treat (with video)

 

Old favourite features inventive staging and costumes, with a more conventional approach to Bizet’s score

 
 
 
 
Carmen (Kate Aldrich) dances in Lillas Pastias’ tavern in Vancouver Opera’s 2014 show. Photo: Tim Matheson.
 
 

Carmen (Kate Aldrich) dances in Lillas Pastias’ tavern in Vancouver Opera’s 2014 show. Photo: Tim Matheson.

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Vancouver Opera’s Carmen

Sept 27, 28; again Oct. 2 to 5 | Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Tickets and info: vancouveropera.ca

Back in 1960, Georges Bizet’s Carmen was Vancouver Opera’s first production, and it’s been regularly mounted ever since. VO’s latest version (its ninth) opened a six-performance run Saturday at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, in a staging that will enchant opera newbies while offering significant rewards to opera veterans.

A joint effort between Toronto, Montreal, and San Diego companies, this production has been updated to South or Central America during the first half of the 20th century. The concept works: Sets and costumes are grittily inventive, and the staging plays out well on the big Queen Elizabeth Theatre stage, with all the action almost claustrophobically up front.

Leads Don José and Carmen are double cast. Opening night’s Carmen — American mezzo Kate Aldrich — was magnificent. Her dark, earthy voice had focused intensity and power to spare; her Carmen was by turns mercurial, imperious, cruel and vulnerable, and her concentration never slipped for a moment.

As the hapless Don José, tenor Richard Troxell delivered an unconvincing first act, but steadily gave more and more until he became shatteringly effective in the short, intense concluding act.

Soprano Marianne Fiset was vocally strong in the somewhat thankless role of Micaëla, the dull country girl set up as Carmen’s virtuous opposite.

In our era of director/designer-driven opera, it is always interesting to see what a good director can bring to the party. Joel Ivany, from Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre, has created something memorable.

Ivany’s very active staging is quintessentially theatrical. Although there are plenty of effects, especially in the last act, they are never gratuitous and always serve a singular vision of the work.

The decision to use the original Opéra-Comique version of the score (which includes spoken dialogue) benefits the production enormously, adding an extra dimension of visceral drama. While not every member of the cast was equally effective delivering their snippets of French text, Ivany demanded — and clearly received — complete commitment from his leads.

The variable quality of the spoken dialogue was mirrored in musical inconsistencies and blemishes. Conductor Jacques Lacombe proved unable to get the best from the VO chorus and orchestra on Saturday night. Despite brisk tempi, the crisp detail essential to Bizet’s compelling score was often neglected, suggesting that Lacombe’s vision was far more bland and more conventional than the director’s.

These quibbles notwithstanding, Vancouver Opera’s latest Carmen is an impressive achievement. It’s a production that can be recommended without hesitation to first-time opera goes, and one that will provoke many moments of thoughtful reconsideration for those familiar with Bizet’s popular masterwork.

Troxell and Aldrich perform next Oct. 2 and 4; Ginger Costa-Jackson and Christopher Magiera, who sang the lead roles Sunday, will also perform Oct. 3 and 5.

 
 
 
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Carmen (Kate Aldrich) dances in Lillas Pastias’ tavern in Vancouver Opera’s 2014 show. Photo: Tim Matheson.
 

Carmen (Kate Aldrich) dances in Lillas Pastias’ tavern in Vancouver Opera’s 2014 show. Photo: Tim Matheson.

 
Carmen (Kate Aldrich) dances in Lillas Pastias’ tavern in Vancouver Opera’s 2014 show. Photo: Tim Matheson.
Carmen (Kate Aldrich) dances in Lillas Pastias’ tavern in Vancouver Opera’s 2014 show. Photo: Tim Matheson.
Carmen (Kate Aldrich) encourages Don José (Richard Troxell) to leave the army and come with her to the mountains in Vancouver Opera’s 2014 show. Photo: Tim Matheson.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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