More than a century after her debut on the Parisian stage, the gypsy Carmen continues to fascinate opera audiences. Her fiercely independent spirit, bold defiance of conventions, and dangerous beauty prove an irresistible combination, making Carmen one of opera’s best-known heroines.
With a constant stream of vibrant music, catchy melodies, and powerful orchestration by composer Georges Bizet, it is not surprising that Carmen has become one of the most beloved operas of all time. This year alone, there will be productions in over 20 cities around the world, with full-scale productions currently running in Toronto and New York City.
Both New York and Toronto have had a long standing love affair with Carmen. “It has been played in Toronto longer than hockey,” states an essay from the Canadian Opera Company’s 1979 program of Carmen (now on the COC website).
Based on the novel by Prosper Merimée, Carmen was received relatively coldly when it first opened in Paris on March 3, 1875 at the Opéra Comique. But it didn’t take long for the opera to become an international sensation, and by 1879 it had already premiered in both New York and Toronto.
Following a successful 2005 production, Carmen is back in Toronto for a month’s run with the Canadian Opera Company. Two talented vocalists have been cast in the role of Carmen—Israeli-born mezzo soprano Rinat Shaham (Jan. 27-Feb. 14) and Georgian soprano Anita Rachvelishvili (Feb. 17-27).
Shaham, a veteran Carmen performer, just wrapped up a Vancouver production before joining the Toronto cast. Alongside Shaham is tenor Bryan Hymel in the role of Corporal Don José, who recently made his debut with the Canadian opera company as Colonel Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly.
A group of talented cast members make this Toronto production a powerful musical and dramatic interpretation of the opera. Among them is French bass baritone Paul Gay as matador Escamillo, French Canadian bass Alain Coulombe, the Canadian Opera Company Chorus, and the opera’s children chorus.
A fine vocalist and a talented dancer, Shaham delivers a vibrant portrayal of the spirited gypsy. With a strong stage presence, she captures Carmen’s independent spirit and alluring movements. The lyrics of the Habanera, one of the most stunning operatic compositions sung by Carmen in her first appearance on stage, captures her rebellious spirit: “Love is a gypsy’s child. It has never known any law. If you don’t love me, well, I love you. If I love you, watch out.”
With little regard for either moral codes or the hearts of men, Carmen casts her spell on Don José, a shy soldier whose infatuation with Carmen proves fatal for both. Hymel delivers a powerful portrayal of Don José’s degeneration from dutiful soldier to an outlaw who is gradually consumed by his passion. Having given up his career and reputation to follow Carmen, Don José becomes controlling, a trait Carmen’s independent nature cannot tolerate. Her betrayal with the dashing but arrogant matador Escamillo (whose song Toreador is another opera favourite) delivers the final blow to Don José.
Despite her faults, Carmen presents dignity, a trait captured beautifully by Shaham’s interpretation, especially in the final two acts. Carmen never tries to disguise who she really is. It is Don José who is blind to her disregard for men’s feelings. Unable to see this, he becomes overwhelmed with jealousy and attempts to control her. In the final act however, Carmen remains true to herself—she prefers to die rather than give up her independence.