When the Canadian Opera Company production of Carmen premiered in 2005, a young Joel Ivany was an extra posing as a photographer in the scene wherein the bullfighter Escamillo makes his entrance. Ivany returns now as the director behind the COC’s latest iteration of Bizet’s popular opera.
It’s a fitting role. A slow changing of the guards has been taking place in Canadian opera over the past decade, with local talents such as Ivany emerging to take the helm, or returning from abroad as glimmering gems of the development programs that shaped them. And Carmen is, at bottom, an opera about changing tides – it begins with a literal changing of the guards – so any worthwhile production needs a little edge, needs to take a few risks. Ivany’s production manages to electrify the air around it at every turn by straddling the line between spontaneity and recognizability.
This production is what happens when the irresistible force of J’Nai Bridges’s Carmen meets the immovable object of Marcelo Puente’s mercurial Don Jose. Despite the opera’s protracted length, everything hinges on those first few seconds when the titular character appears on stage. Making her COC debut, Bridges manages to land an elegantly understated entrance, winning this lengthy game of seduction before it’s even started.
Once Bridges sets the tone with an execution of the Habanera aria that’s positively flammable, the rest of the ensemble takes this fiery baton and runs in every feasible direction. Joyce El-Khoury’s Micaela is a sophisticated mélange of naïveté and a less-than-innocent dosage of bravery. Alain Coulombe as the jaded Zuniga will leave you asking for a spinoff opera focusing on the officer. And whoever stuck to their guns in casting Lucas Meachem as Escamillo needs a raise – every gesture, every rattle of his robust baritone seems to say, “I’m here for a good time, not a long time.”
Speaking of guns, this production certainly overdid it with the weaponry; it seems the props department mistook the plot for a western and brought a gun to a bullfight. Nevertheless, the set and costume designs are a feast for the eyes, with lighting designer Jason Hand bathing each scene in a warm Mediterranean glow. From the pit, Jacques Lacombe’s orchestra sends up a steady procession of some of opera’s greatest hits. Most impressive was the restraint of those audience members who, knowing every word to the Habanera, managed to stay mum. The dam just might break in one of these performances, and that would be quite the experience to behold.
Without a doubt, the highlight of this production is the immersive audience engagement – Ivany’s signature touch – at the top of the final act. This production, like Escamillo, is here for a good time, and no expense is spared in staving off the plot’s underlying morbidity till the last minute. Ivany doesn’t miss the opportunity to squeeze out one more fanfare, doing so in a fashion reminiscent of the bohemian atmosphere of his Against the Grain Theatre’s Opera Pub concerts. The dissolution of that invisible lamina between stage and audience is emblematic of the changing of the guards that Toronto’s opera community has been cultivating, with a shift toward more accessible opera with productions that will come to you – in this case, literally – rather than demand your attention from some lofty perch. Overall, this Carmen is an invitation to a party, and the sour note on which it ends is no reason to not enjoy it while it lasts.
Let’s turn now to that tragic ending. Oof. Even this democratic production, with its diverse casting and accentuation of strong female characters, can’t save Carmen from contemporary scrutiny. In an interview in August with smART Magazine, Bridges lamented the murder for its perpetual relevance: “You still hear so many stories of men killing women, usually because their egos are crushed.” Stories of strong women benefit from including men who find strength in their own accountability, she noted.
When it premiered in 1875, Carmen signified a changing tide toward female sexuality unburdened from the fetters of the male gaze. Now, in this production, we glimpse a new meaning in how this opera inverts the sexist trope of semper femina – “woman is a fickle thing” – by emphasizing its male characters as the fickle featherweights whose desires vacillate with the weather.
In bullfighting, the difference between a toreador and a matador is notable: The former is content with teasing the bull, while the latter must kill it. Hence why the toreador Escamillo is universally beloved, and Don Jose is merely tolerated. With his ego flattened by Carmen’s rejection, Don Jose’s fragility figuratively transforms him from a doormat to a matador in the flash of a moment. Carmen persists in the operatic canon because a good production, such as this one, can deliver this grave ending with a playful wink: Whether in love or in a bullfight, it’s only fun if everyone emerges relatively unscathed.
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