A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, September 27. Continues October 2 to 5
Vancouver Opera’s decision to revisit Georges Bizet’s beloved Carmen—the first production the company ever staged, in 1960—raises the inevitable question: do we really need another one? After all, this marks the 10th time VO has brought the Gypsy seductress to the Queen Elizabeth stage, and just five years have passed since Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham entranced Vancouver with her unabashedly sexual performance in the title role.
Well, what do you know? Turns out we really did need a new Carmen.
In his company debut, director Joel Ivany has brought us a fresh, human take that engages and entertains as much as it provokes. With the action updated from late-19th-century Spain to 1940s Latin America, the production—a joint affair between Toronto, Montreal, and San Diego companies—boasts visually stunning sets and décor, note-perfect period costumes, and raw performances from a young cast of singers who are adept actors to boot.
Saturday night’s opener had the beguiling mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich singing the title role opposite tenor Richard Troxell (the pair alternate performances with mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson and tenor Christopher Magiera). With a luscious, caramel voice and open sensuality, Aldrich was an enchanting seductress, bringing a touch of tenderness to the role. But don’t let the title of the opera fool you: the true protagonist here, in Ivany’s telling, is the hapless Don José.
Over the course of four acts, Troxell’s character slowly disintegrates, a victim not so much of Carmen’s wiles, but of his own anemic self-control. Despite knowing what is best for him—he does, after all, express his intent to marry the sweet and pious Micaëla (superbly sung by Marianne Fiset) in Act 1—he is easily manipulated by the initially amorous, and later contemptuous, Carmen.
As a singer, Troxell is more than decent; as an actor, he is excellent. In the final scene, where he kills Carmen in a fit of jealous rage, he appears not as a scorned lover, but as a pathetic and deluded figure with little command over his actions. He performs his murderous act in a pit-stained wife-beater, ill-fitting pants and—the kicker—dirty, bare feet. When the deed is done, Don José’s cry “You can arrest me, I killed her” is made to no one at all, for the pair are out of sight and earshot of the crowd.
This final confrontation takes place in a brilliantly cinematic set: a cross section of bleachers, facing stage left, holds a crowd entranced by a bullfight. They cheer and wave handkerchiefs, oblivious to the fact that, below them, Carmen is being murdered.
It’s worth noting that Ivany selectively blurs the barrier between audience and cast, most notably at the beginning of Act 4, when the QE was effectively transformed into a bullfight arena. Chorus members dressed as stadium vendors marched down the aisles hawking oranges, cigarettes, and bull figurines—followed by the toreadors themselves, who swagger and preen for the crowd. So when Carmen loses her life, out of sight of the bullfighting spectators, the audience feels almost complicit in her death.
It’s powerful, riveting stuff. And if this is any indication of what VO has in store as the season unfolds, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.