Pacific Opera Victoria originally planned to stage Bizet’s Carmen two years ago. Well… we all know how that turned out. Global pandemics have a nasty habit of catapulting Brobdingnagian spanners into everything .
Montreal’s Carolyn Sproule, originally hired for the larger-than-life title role, finally got her chance in POV’s opening night performance of Carmen. One can see why she was cast as the incandescent gypsy temptress. Beautiful and imposingly tall, Sproule has an attractively dark mezzo-soprano voice that opened up beguilingly and satisfyingly over Wednesday night’s performance.
One can also see why Newfoundland’s Adam Luther was enlisted Don Jose, the naive soldier who takes one gander at Carmen and is fatally hooked. Blessed with a pleasant tenor, Luther is tall, dark, handsome. He and Sproule look just fantastic on stage together.
Particularly fine was Carmen’s devastating finale in which Don Jose – torn to pieces by Carmen’s hostile rejection – takes her life with a dagger. We get a hint things are poised to go less than swimmingly when ominous notes seep into the score and a pair of blood-red gates slowly close behind Carmen (one of many fine directorial touches from Francois Racine). In this scene Sproule convinced us of Carmen’s fierce insistence on independence, even if it means death. Indeed, so immersed were we in the action, it hardly mattered when her wig threatened to slip off after Luther enthusiastically grabbed her head scarf. And we believed in Don Jose’s terrible anguish and the inevitability of a murder that ruins two lives.
Sproule did justice to all of Carmen’s showstoppers including the famous habanera L’amour est un oiseau rebel – seductively embracing a white-aproned waiter and luring in poor Don Jose like the irresistible siren she truly is.
Credit goes to choreographer Jacques Lemay who oversaw the gypsy dance permeating Carmen. The serpentine arm/hand movements are a delight. Racine, with a keen eye for detail, ensures the crowd scenes are always bubbling with life. There are some charming sequences for street urchins (these young performers ook an early bow on opening night, as though it was time for them to get to bed).
One thing that mystified me is the scene when Don Jose and bullfighter Escamillo (baritone Jorell Williams) abruptly realize they are rivals for Carmen’s love. It’s a potentially dramatic bit, especially given the two were friendly, yet on this night Williams and Luther displayed little reaction at the revelation. An opportunity missed, perhaps.
We all have our favourites. For me it was soprano Lauren Margison, daughter of Canadian tenor Richard Margison. The young singer plays Michaela, Don Jose’s long-suffering would-be fiance. It’s not particularly spicy role; poor old Michaela is a slice of white-bread compared to a Carmen’s ghost-pepper chutzpah.
Happily, Bizet blessed the character with lovely melodies equal to anything else that happens on stage.
Margison first wowed us with Parle-moi de ma mere (Speak to me of my mother), a duet with with Don Jose, revealing remarkable nuance and technical facility. Even more notable was Act III’s Je dis que rien ne m’epouvate (I try not to own that I tremble), in which Michaela laments Carmen’s hold on Don Jose and prays for courage (she ha sneaked into a dangerous gypsy encampment). Here we heard the same technical control, with wonderful attention to dynamics. Margison dispatched a series of captivating high notes with a keening, passionate edge – bringing the character thrillingly to life and earning some of the evening’s loudest applause.
This is a fairly traditional Carmen set in the late 1930s during the time of the Spanish Civil War. Opera lovers will enjoy Olivier Landreville’s detailed, tasteful, highly functional sets – complete with cleverly weathered commercial signage.
Notables in secondary roles include mezzo-soprano Marjorie Maltais as Mercedes and soprano Andrea Nunez as Frasquita – each providing strong singing worthy of any lead performer. A large chorus also sang and performed well.
Under Timothy Vernon’s baton the Victoria Symphony brought Bizet’s familiar music vividly to life, providing accompaniment that was lively while never overshadowing the singing. All the nuances in the score were explored – whether it be humble castanet clacking or a rapturous woodwind melodies.