MONTREAL — Don José ditches the passionate Micaela for the reserved and misunderstood Carmen. Finally, when Carmen won’t give in to his unreasonable demands, he kills her.
Such was Opéra de Montréal’s production of “Carmen,” which opened Saturday at Place des Arts’ Salle-Wilfrid-Pelletier, when a misguided director tried to make a “politically correct” statement out of Georges Bizet’s 1875 timeless tale of love and passion.
Ultimately, it was a largely dull performance, such a waste of an excellent chorus and orchestra, as well as a beautiful set and costumes. (One of my readers reported falling asleep several times.)
“Carmen” not only has one of the most recognizable scores in all of music, it is one of the best crafted in opera, with nary a weak moment. In the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, the story, with its dark realism, is also one of the most universal.
The free-spirit Gypsy Carmen seduces the naïve Don José and spirits him away from his beloved Micaela and his army troop. Eventually Carmen tires of Don José and moves on to the bullfighter Escamillo. Don José decides that if he can’t have Carmen, no one can.
Nothing new here. And nothing political.
But director Charles Binamé, actually an award-winning filmmaker, writes in his notes: “From this perspective (of the persecution of the Gypsies), Carmen could no longer be a cliché or strictly seen as a lascivious object, an exotic she-devil. Her clan is a family whose ties are interwoven with survival, rejection and humiliation.”
The idea that Carmen, in the context of the opera, is a victim – or a villain – is laughable. The three main characters in this opera are rich full-blooded human beings whose passions clash with tragic results. (I’ve known Carmens, and they weren’t Gypsies.) This makes for great drama – and great opera.
Binamé’s direction makes it difficult to judge Krista de Silva’s performance in the total role. She sang beautifully, but in a somewhat lackluster way, some of the most sexually charged arias in all of opera. De Silva’s portrayal seemed aimed at suppressing any sex appeal right down to the bland dancing and costume.
In this all-Canadian cast, the bright light was soprano France Bellarme’s brilliant Micaëla. It was impossible not to feel her love for Don José.
The men didn’t do very well on the sex appeal scale either. Tenor Antoine Bélanger sang reasonably well, though occasionally straining the gorgeous French lyricism, but didn’t seem to like touching Carmen (except for the passionate finale). Bass-baritone Christopher Dunham sang well as Escamillo but lacked presence, and didn’t seem to like Carmen much either.
The physical production was gorgeous and powerful. Olivier Mandeville’s grand set morphed beautifully through the four acts, dramatically lit by Alain Lortie, while Dominique Guindon’s period costumes were apropos and beautiful.
Despite being staged like a high school musical, the chorus and orchestra were the stars of the evening. Directed by Claude Webster, the chorus delivered this exquisite French choral writing beautifully. And Bizet’s brilliant orchestra writing was realized effectively and sensitively by Alan Trudel and the Orchestre Metropolitain. They sounded great.
If directors don’t like a composer or librettist’s portrayal of a certain character, perhaps they should choose a different opera. Most of us opera lovers are in love with the rich and irresistible character of Carmen – just the way she is.