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Review: Pacific Opera Victoria's Carmen

Pacific Opera Victoria's fourth Carmen in 25 years is a great night at the opera
Pacific Opera Victoria presents Carmen, opening Feb. 16 at the Royal Theatre

Georges Bizet’s Carmen, with its killer combination of sex, death and gorgeous music wrapped up in that genre rarity: an almost believable plot, sits comfortably on every fan’s list of Top 10 operas. Consequently, this story of a gypsy femme fatale who drags a good man to their mutual doom cycles through every opera company’s repertoire about twice a decade or so — Pacific Opera Victoria’s current production is their fourth Carmen in just over 25 years.

POV patrons with long memories may recall an infamous Carmen set in revolutionary Nicaragua. They may rest assured that this is a more traditional production, one anachronistic stage element aside. Costumes seem at least authentically Spanish and the time period rings true. The only oddity is a round rotateable structure of open wooden girders intended to suggest walls in urban settings and I wasn’t quite sure what in the gypsy camp scene. On the Royal’s rather small stage, it mostly just made crowd scenes even more crowded.

Vocally and musically, this is a good production. Conductor Timothy Vernon gets a fine sound out of the Victoria Symphony — a few more brass and woodwinds would have been welcome in some passages, but there just isn’t room in the Royal’s pit for more musicians. The young cast of singers all acquitted themselves admirably — in particular, soprano Miriam Khalil and mezzo Sylvia Szadvszki as Carmen’s gypsy friends. As the lead smugglers, tenor Riccardo Iannello and baritone Andrew Love really stood out for both their vocal abilities and acting smarts.

In her role debut as Carmen, mezzo Allyson McHardy displayed a gorgeous tone that lacked only volume in a few instances. My only real complaint is that in her first big aria, the character-defining Habañera, the tempo could have been just a trifle brisker — the scene needed more snap. The lady can act, though.

Tenor Eric Fennell’s Don José delivered the goods vocally, but was let down by the director in finding a way to convey his character’s torment, coming across more as just petulant than maddened by jealousy.

Soprano Leslie Ann Bradley as Micaëla, the only truly good person in the story, stunned the audience with her fine coloratura. On Saturday night, she received more applause at curtain than even McHardy.

Baritone Etienne Dupuis did a great job as the self-centred, supercilious toreador Escamillo. His Toreador song, the other great, though oft parodied, hit from the opera, had perhaps a tad too much vibrato, but otherwise was a fine performance.

But this isn’t a very exciting Carmen. It often plods when it should soar. The snap that’s missing from the Habañera remains elusive for the rest of the performance, only making brief appearances here and there. The first act especially depends on a strong chorus, but this one is rather thin vocally — too many sopranos and not enough lower ranges in evidence.

There is some decent dancing and director Dennis Garnhum keeps the cast moving around in an attempt to create visual interest, but there are often so many bodies on a small, restricted stage that the focus on important story elements is lost.

Garnhum’s decision to place the final confrontation between José and Carmen outside the bullring as the crowd celebrates Escamillo’s triumph is arguably inspired, but it leaves José crying out to be arrested with no one to hear him. In what has, up until that point, been a naturalistic portrayal, this is an existential bridge too far.

Musically, this is a very good night at the opera. Theatrically, not so much. M