Sunday, January 25, 2009

Carmen / Vancouver Opera: It was high time for a good production

Time is everything in Carmen, and Carmen, the heroine, plays with her music, as if to delay what she knows is in the cards for her.

Her languourous hesitations, as in such great numbers as the habañera and seguidilla, suggest almost a metaphysical purchase on time, as contrasted with the four-square rhythms of the soldiers' music and other more worldly tunes heard around that Sevillean cigarette factory.

Scored with immense sophistication, the music is full of nuance: that forebodingly anxious augmented second when Carmen's prescient theme makes a fatalistic turn as it recurrently does, the woodwinds that take an unprecedented prominence in an opera, the violins that imitate guitars, the rarely used cor anglais in the Don's flower song ...

Nietzsche adored Carmen, as did Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss. Only the opening night 1875 Parisian audience, shockingly, hated it because its emotions were too unbourgeois and unpretty. But there's a good reason why Carmen's brutal murder takes place outside a bull ring. It's almost filmic the way the music of that last scene plays out, not continously but sharply intercut by roars from the crowd inside, the fractured pace reflecting the mental state of poor Don José with that shockingly bright F-sharp (the death of the bull) also screaming out the death of Carmen.

Vancouver Opera's past attempts at Bizet's masterpiece have been less than stellar. A considerable superstition has grown around mounting an evidently "fail-proof" work, globally suggesting that it's the sure ones that are the most likely to misfire.

Lucian Pintilie's direction of it during Expo '86, though brilliantly effective and not only in terms of shock value, drew thrilling howls of outrage and programs hurled at the stage for his politicized view of the work; not content with that, people then mailed in their torn-up subscriptions. Then there was that French mezzo whose name evoked a can of pineapple and who was a rather pregnant Carmen at the time, making her stormy scene with Don José look more like a slightly vigorous Lamaze class. Then there was the wan Don who more credibly suggested a role in Giselle, and so on.

It was high time for a good production and this time the world's most popular opera gets it. The production has the feeling of good old authenticity, right down to the smoking on stage, and why shouldn't there be? The set, from Austin Lyric Opera, is traditional and attractive, and musically, with conductor Antony Walker, it's all in place, from the orchestra and chorus to the soloists — a fine bunch.

The Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham is a famous Carmen and we can see why. Not only does the attractive Shaham look the part, she acts it and her singing is seductive, tempestuous and sultry with wonderfully deep chest notes. Escamillo (Daniel Okulitch) locates the low notes of his famous aria with the precision you'd expect from a toreador, and few Escamillos can hold those notes down.

Tenor David Pomeroy is a fine Don José, though he doesn't even attempt a rapturously held, softly sung high B-flat in La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée, which he otherwise sings mellifluously, lyrically, as if to remind us that this is a French opera (if one that, up to then, beat all the Spanish composers in defining a national style). But that aria is all about the B-flat. It shouldn't sound heroic. Strong work, too, from Mariateresa Magisano (Micaëla), Alain Coulombe (Zuniga), Karen Ydenberg (Frasquita) and Majorie Poirier (Mercédès).

The production has a feeling of implacability, an indefinable sensation of fate, which you can feel despite knowing how things will all come out. As Nietzsche said, "I do not know of any other instance where tragic humour, which constitutes the essence of love, is expressed in a more shattering phrase than in Don José's last words."