When I was first getting into opera, Ruggero Raimondi was my guide, at first without my really realizing it. In the beginning I wasn’t paying much attention to the names on the CD covers, but once I started paying attention I realized he was on all my favourite recordings. I started off with Puccini, and Raimondi was there on the 1979 Carreras/Ricciarelli Tosca, as the smoothest evilest Scarpia out there. Then I moved on to Mozart, and Raimondi was there as a chocolate-tongued Don Giovanni and a Count Almaviva with gravitas. Then I started getting into the Russian rep and Raimondi was there in the Russianest opera of them all, Boris Godunov. Then I was interested in Rossini and Raimondi was there again in a variety of comic roles.
If you live in a city with an opera company, you’ll never have long to wait before you have an opportunity to see Carmen. And usually, that’s a good thing. There’s a reason why Carmen enjoys such unwavering popularity: dynamite scene follows catchy tune follows dynamite scene, there are very few lulls in the action, the sexual undercurrent (overcurrent?) is potent, and Carmen herself is one of the most formidable characters in the repertoire.
Also, its depiction of male-female relationships is a lot closer to how we as modern audiences understand them. The love from first sight until death yours forever most beautiful woman in the world I’ll kill myself if I can’t be with you attitude that characterizes a lot of the operatic repertoire – Verdi, I’m looking at you – can seem naive and one-dimensional to an audience accustomed to more complex relationships. Carmen, however, gives us a “love story” where passions ebb and flow; where lovers are alternately kind, cruel, and manipulative; where sex is a concrete and foreground presence rather than a subtext; where love comes into conflict with career and family and it isn’t immediately obvious that love should come first. I was struck for the first time by a moment in the last act where Carmen tells Escamillo that she loves him more than she’s ever loved any other man. It’s possible she tells that to all the men, of course. But that the librettist didn’t even bother to pretend that Don Jose was Carmen’s grand amour, that her most passionate romance might be with a minor character, struck me as key to what makes Carmen so different from other operas.
Even Don José fits in with conventional modern ideas of the kind of man who would murder his ex in a jealous rage: shy, repressed, fraught relationship with his mother, low-ranking in the world, and generally a bit of a loser with masculinity issues. The Freudian angle on the Act I José/Michaela love scene practically spins itself: It starts with parle-moi de ma mère and the culminating kiss is spoken of by both parties as “a kiss from mom”. Carmen seems to be his first real brush with adult sexuality, and it soon turns out he’s in over his head. I was wondering during the production if it wouldn’t be more interesting if instead of Michaela (who is vapid as a love interest and too obvious a foil), José’s mom was actually a character; but then she’d have to be a contralto and what’s an opera without a soprano role?
Now to the COC production itself. This is the third time I’ve seen Carmen on stage, and the second time I’ve seen this particular production (apparently I’ve been going to the COC long enough now to see old productions come around again). With operas I’ve seen a couple of times before, what I look for in a production is whether it reveals something new about the opera. And this production passed the test, mostly due to leading lady Rinat Shaham. She’s got a sumptuous voice and strong stage presence, and also cleavage. Previous Carmens have disappointed me in the second half of Act II – the scenes between Carmen and Don José at Lilas Pastia’s – but she managed to pull off the blend of lust, cunning, anger, and exhilaration that the scene demands. After seeing one review complaining that her portrayal was “tawdry”, I was a little worried that the production would cheat by giving us signifiers of sexiness like bayonet-humping and lap dancing rather than the real deal. There’s a difference between pulling reality-tv-inspired look-how-hottt-I-am moves and conveying actual desire. I was impressed by how well Shaham managed to radiate sexuality without sacrificing the strength and dignity of the character.
Bryan Hymel was less impressive as Don José, and his voice had a nasal, fluttering quality that was unappealing to me. But he managed to generate considerable vocal force at the key moments. Paul Gay as Escamillo could have stood to be a bit more alpha-male.
The setting was updated to sometime in the early 20th century (the 30′s?) but honestly, the difference amounted to a costume update and was generally inconsequential. The production lacked visual interest; but I tend to prefer more highly stylized productions over those that go for realism.
One detail I particularly liked was in the final scene. Carmen, after having been thrown to the floor, throws Jose’s ring at him; and it’s the moment when he’s supposed to finally lose it and stab her. But this time, he didn’t. He backed off, turned away from her, put his hands in his head. After a moment, Carmen gave a relieved little laugh – all that bluster for nothing – and calmly got back on her feet, brushed herself off, and headed for the door. Of course she didn’t make it back outside. Cheap horror-movie trick? Sure. But it jolted me out of my expectations of how that scene is supposed to play out, and that’s the kind of thing that makes a third run-around with Carmen worthwhile.
I won’t be seeing the COC’s Carmen until Friday the 5th. To make sure I go in with as many preconceived ideas about it as possible, here are some reviews:
Rinat Shaham is cheerful for someone who has just been thrown into an operatic fire – the Canadian Opera Company’s current Carmen, which runs to Feb. 27.
Then again, fire is what the New Yorker is all about. The dusky timbred mezzo soprano is a popular choice for the title role of a hot-blooded gypsy temptress because she is the whole package.
Big, flexible voice? Check. Sultry looks? Yup. Flashing brown eyes? Got it. She can even dance.
These are substantial gifts for a Toronto production that is musically strong, but visually tepid.
To be certain, mezzo soprano Rinat Shaham sounds the part and even looks it as well — so much so that a few of Francois St-Aubin’s full-speed-ahead-and-watch-those-torpedoes costumes could most definitely be considered lily gilding.
But what director Justin Way fails to grasp in this wooden and too-often self-conscious staging is that, in much the same way as water never has to try to be wet, Carmen as written never has to try to be sexy. And in insisting Shaham wrap and writhe herself around poles and straddle chairs to seduce tenor Byan Hymel’s lugubrious Don Jose and bass baritone Paul Gay’s wooden Escamillo, is a little like using an atom bomb to kill a mosquito.
Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham was a stunning Carmen – to see, to hear, to experience dramatically. New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel turned in a passionate and thrillingly sung Don José. Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead was a persuasive and touching Micaela. The three, beautifully abetted by the COC orchestra under Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald and the COC chorus trained by Sandra Horst, provided a stirring central musico-dramatic core, which sustained us through this astonishing, beautiful and still-upsetting work.
If you count Gilbert & Sullivan (and here, I will) the first opera I attended was the Rossland Light Opera’s Pirates of Penzance. I was around seven years old, and a fledgling pianist who greatly enjoyed my Classical Kids tapes. Evidently my mother decided I was capable of sitting quietly for up to an hour, and off we went. She gave me a few pointers on the plot (including explaining the often/orphan joke) and a large bag of candy, and at the end of the evening my initiation as an opera-goer was complete. A few days later we ran into the actor who played Frederic at the post office, and I recognized him and was amazed. My mother told me that if I liked to sing, one day I could join a singing group just like that.
After that comes a large gap. I loved Broadway musicals but wasn’t very interested in opera – the vocal style seemed heavy and strange, and it put me off. I was still playing the piano, and I saw the odd ballet and stage play, but no opera.
Eventually, around the time I got to grade 10 (we had moved to Edmonton by then), I reached the level in my piano playing where the Royal Conservatory of Music required me to study music history. The introductory course covered the Romantic era, and La Traviata, Carmen and Die Walkure were on the syllabus. Something went “click” in my head, and I put away my Broadway CDs. I studied the course material like a maniac and started spending all my money on symphony tickets.
The music course hadn’t told me enough about opera. I convinced my mother to buy me a copy of Opera for Dummies, figuring it would be the quickest way to get up to speed. Though co-written by a computer professional, it contained useful information about the major operas and composers, vocal types, the importance of Maria Callas, and so on. Before long I had the book and accompanying CD committed to memory.
The first “real” opera I saw was Il Barbiere di Siviglia, at Edmonton Opera. By this time I was pretty far gone. I took opera box sets out of the public library three or four at a time and listened with libretto in hand. Opera went round and round in my head all day. I spent a car trip with my parents listening to Act II from Tosca over and over on my discman. After a few underage drinks, I was pretty likely to start singing opera in the middle of my friends’ parties. My favourite singer back then was Ruggero Raimondi. I followed the conversation (but rarely posted) on rec.music.opera, and began to believe my knowledge was hopelessly inadequate, and that because I didn’t live in New York I’d never get caught up.
My obsession continued unabated most of the way through high school and university. Edmonton Opera’s four (then, when the recession hit, three) operas a year I supplemented with video performances from the library. I started taking singing lessons, and spent a good part of the lesson just talking about opera with my teacher.
At some point a few years ago, I ran out of steam. Perhaps that’s how it goes with most teenage obsessions. I moved to Toronto and had the opportunity to go to the opera more frequently, and then I spent a year in NYC and had a chance to see live some of the performers whose recordings I’d been listening to for years. But even though I attend the opera more frequently now than I did as an Edmonton neophyte, much of the fervor has gone. Now, I rarely sing opera in the shower or listening to it while cooking dinner.
I’m not quite sure what happened, and whatever it was, I think it’s a bit of a shame. This blog is, in part, an effort to get some of that excitement back. Because when I see something amazing like the Lapage Bluebeard’s Castle or Karita Matilla’s Jenufa, I’m reminded that it’s all still there.
P.S. In honor of that first night at the “opera”: