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Trio of singers redeems flawed revival of Carmen

Rinat Shaham and Alain Coulombe in the Canadian Opera Company's 2010 production of Carmen.

MICHAEL COOPER/For use during the 2009/2010 season

Carmen by Georges Bizet

  • The Canadian Opera Company
  • Rinat Shaham, mezzo-soprano
  • Bryan Hymel, tenor
  • Rory Macdonald, conductor
  • At the Four Seasons Centre In Toronto on Wednesday

The Canadian Opera Company greeted the new year Wednesday with a revival of its 2005 production of Bizet's Carmen, which was fortunate indeed to be redeemed by a believable trio of lead singers.

Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham was a stunning Carmen - to see, to hear, to experience dramatically. New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel turned in a passionate and thrillingly sung Don José. Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead was a persuasive and touching Micaela. The three, beautifully abetted by the COC orchestra under Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald and the COC chorus trained by Sandra Horst, provided a stirring central musico-dramatic core, which sustained us through this astonishing, beautiful and still-upsetting work.

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My vote goes also to whoever made the astute decision to restore the connective dialogue between scenes to its original spoken form. After Bizet's death, in a stupid attempt to subvert his revolutionary upending of the opéra-comique format to accommodate a new, brisker opéra-tragique, the obliging but modestly gifted Ernest Guiraud was engaged to make an adaptation of those spoken words into time-consuming sung and accompanied recitative.

The object of this impertinence was to turn Bizet's work into a proper "grand opera." All it achieved was a dulling of its point and a blurring of the clear outlines of Bizet's perfectly judged and exquisitely proportioned scenes. So, congratulations go to whoever decided to eliminate Guiraud's contribution from this COC revival.

U.S. designer Michael Yeargan's sets are the least appealing reminder of the 2005 production. Yeargan's Act I is satisfactory, if uninspired, with its high, wrought-iron fence and gates. His Act II tavern has a tacky fifties look, with turquoise plastic chairs, corroborated by designer François St-Aubin's entrance costume for the bullfighter Escamillo, which looks like a snappy casual outfit from an old L.L. Bean fall catalogue. Yeargan's Act III, the "smugglers' camp," made you wonder if he'd ever seen a smuggler or a camp. And his Act IV set was hardest of all to enjoy, with its sterile under-the-stairs-at-the-stadium look. Couldn't we have had some seething dust and merciless Spanish sun for Carmen's bloody murder?

Director Justin Way's restaging of this revival improved some scenes, not others. The smugglers' encampment eluded him as it had eluded the designer.

But the singing and Bizet's music saved the day. The only one of the principals to disappoint was the complacent but stolid French bass-baritone Paul Gay. His Escamillo didn't look much like any toreador I ever saw and the bass end of his bass-baritone didn't have the required low notes, nor had the baritone end of it the rolling, ringing virility it needs.

The smaller roles were mostly very well filled. Quebec bass Alain Coulombe was a rock-solid Captain of the Guard. Baritone Alexander Hajek had an excellent opening scene, vocally assured and convincing. Soprano Teiya Kasahara and mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal were splendid as Carmen's companions Frasquita and Mercedes, as were baritone Justin Welsh and tenor Adam Luther, representing two resourceful smugglers.

For me, though, the essence of Bizet's Carmen came through most indelibly in Shaham's singing and personification of Carmen's famous arias, especially her sombre and tragic Card Scene; and in Hymel's gripping portrayal of a doomed Don José, evident throughout, from his ecstatic Flower Song in Act II to the shocking dénouement of Act IV - all of it believable, all of it sung.

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Carmen continues to Feb. 27.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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