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Apr 6, 2010

Toronto Falls in Love with New York Mezzo's Carmen

CHRISTOPHER HOILE writes: (Opera News 2010 )

For its latest staging of Bizet's Carmen, Canadian Opera Company brought back the physical production it unveiled in 2005 but brought in a new director, Justin Way, and a new lighting designer, Aaron Black. The results (seen Jan. 27) were literally and psychologically darker than one remembered. Michael Yeargan's sets and François St-Aubin's costumes had relocated the action to 1940s Latin America, where the banana republic atmosphere had given the opera an undesirable satiric edge. Black's lighting counteracted the design's colorful gaiety by frequently backlighting the singers or bathing them in ominous Goyaesque shadows. This reinforced Way's approach, which kept the work's tragic outcome in view from the very start.
Under Way's direction, Israeli-born mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham gave the most nuanced performance of the title role this reviewer has ever seen. Shaham has the ideal voice for Carmen — lush and velvety in its lower register, full and gleaming on top. Shaham's Carmen was not an unthinking force of nature but a flawed human being caught in a trap of her own making. Shaham easily conjured up Carmen's pantherine intensity, locking eyes with Don José as if sealing both his doom and hers. She gave Carmen a subtle layer of self-awareness. This Carmen knew too well that she was struggling against her love for Don José because it entailed her own loss of freedom. Thus, Carmen's frequent reversals of attitude in Act II became a sign not of capriciousness but of acute inner torment that culminated in the exquisitely sung card scene of Act III. Here, Carmen's revelation of her life's central contradiction — a longing for absolute liberty versus a belief in fate — created a profound emotional impact.

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None of the others principals attained Shaham's perfect blend of singing and acting. Soprano Jessica Muirhead sang Micaela with great beauty, but her natural poise made her seem less a peasant girl than an aristocrat in disguise. Bryan Hymel has a powerful tenor with a rapid vibrato that suits the French repertoire, but his acting was too generic to be involving. Bass-baritone Paul Gay was an oddly wooden Escamillo whose lowest notes lacked resonance.

Under the energetic twenty-nine-year-old Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald, the COC Orchestra played with precision and spirit, fully bringing out the vibrant orchestral colors and lively dance rhythms of Bizet's score. In the end one felt exhilarated finally to have seen, in Rinat Shaham, a singer who embodied so completely the beauty, passion and complexity of this iconic character.

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