Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Cuban Carmen

Last night I attended the new COC production of Bizet's Carmen. Arriving in the hall the audience was greeted by a solid oranged wall in place of the usual curtain that looked like a decaying wall covered in graffiti. The orchestra jumped into the music quickly setting of an evening of really enjoyable music. When the wall rose the set placed us in Cuba sometime in the 20th-century. The set consisted of a giant blue wall in the back with raked stairs and prison gates cutting across the stage leaving a little room in front of the gates that acted as the town square. The lighting was harsh and dramatic suggesting the bright sun of the Caribbean. The guards from the prison all wore red while the townspeople were arrayed in an assortment of muted Island colours. 

The whole evening was really an ensemble production with some wonderful performances by the children's choir and the rest of the cast. Of course the star of the evening was Carmen herself, sung beautifully by Anita Rachvelishvili. Not only did Rachvelishvili have a beautiful full mezzo voice but she embodied the character physically. She had a rich, earthy presence and knew how to move on the stage bringing Carmen to life. Russell Thomas as Don José matched Carmen's voice perfectly. His tenor was as strong and as beautiful as Rachvelishvili's mezzo voice. While these two voices made the evening, Christian Van Horn's Escamillo and Simone Osborne's Micaëla were disappointing. Neither had the power or clarity of voice to match the singing of Rachvelishvili and Thomas. Added to the weakness of their voices was some odd clothing choices for Escamillo that never allowed him to shine literally as a romantic character. 

The four acts of the opera saw four different stagings. Act Two changed from the prison yard to a small town square surrounded by buildings in varying states of decay. Lights hanging between the buildings and tables below in the square suggested a seedy area of town where Carmen and her gypsy friends drank away the evenings. Act Three changed to an old Spanish styled church that lay in ruins hidden away in the mountains. Painted over a Spanish styled Madonna was a giant fortune telling hand. 

Act Four saw the return of the graffiti painted wall leaving little room on the stage for the entire ensemble as they collected for the bullfight. The director, Joel Ivany made use of the aisles on the main floor having performers act as hawkers in the bullfight stadium walking through the audience selling their wares. This also became the entrance for the march of the toreadors and picadors. While it was an ingenious way to create the atmosphere of the bullfight I felt it was in a way a cheat by the director. It felt cheesy at times allowing him to focus on theatrics ran than creating the expected spectacle on stage. Once everyone made their way to the crowded stage in front of the wall, the wall arose showing a cutaway of a concrete stadium where the ensemble sat themselves facing stage left while the action between Carmen and José continued below. 

While I found myself enjoying the singing and the overall performance I was disappointed that this traditional staging didn't have any real magical moments. The move from Spain to Cuba worked but Ivany never really made clear why he made these changes. If you are going to change locales there has to be a reason to foreground some idea and this never came through the staging or the performance. 

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