George Bizet’s Carmen

When & Where April 27 at 7:30pm, April 28, 2pm, May 2 at 7:30pm, May 4 at 7:30pm & May 5 at 2pm | Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Music Leslie Dala and Vancouver Opera Orchestra Director Rachel Peake Lighting Designer Itai Erdal Projection Designer Chengyan Boon Set & Costume Designer Gary McCann Choreography Cydney Uffindell-Phillips Fight Director Mike Kovac Stage Manager Theresa Tsang

Carmen Sarah Mesko Don José Alok Kumar Micaëla Jonelle Sills Escamillo Nathan Keoughan Zuniga Alain Coulombe

Sung in French with English surtitles

Reviewer John Anthony Jane

Georges Bizet’s four act opera, with its brilliant orchestrations and rich melodies set against a tale of passion, jealousy, and even vengeance, has remained one of the most popular of operas. Bizet’s tale of misplaced sexual obsession and resultant tragedy has seduced opera house audiences and converted indifferent patrons to zealous neophytes for quite a few generations. And although Bizet himself died before realising the immense success of his chef-d'oeuvre he would surely be well pleased with this traditional production.

The curtain rises amidst the noise and bustle of a Spanish street. Micaëla enters in search of her childhood sweetheart, Don José. Duty soldiers offer her gratuitous gallantry, but when she is told that Don José is on the next guard detail she leaves. At the sound of a factory-bell, factory girls make their appearance and mingle freely among the solders. Carmen is the last to arrive and is immediately the centre of attention. Bizet's mercurial and capricious heroine surely raises the pulses of every male, not only on stage but also in the audience with her coquettish phrasing of the famed aria “Quand je vous aimerai?“ (Habanera). Initially, Don José shuns Carmen’s approach but he is ultimately no match for her wilier street-smarts.

Alok Kumar and Sarah Mesko in Carmen
Photo by Emily Cooper

When Carmen is later arrested, she is placed in the custody of Don José. Carmen tempts him with a promise of rapture in exchange for freedom with the Seguidilla. Don José vacillates between his duty to Micaëla and his primal lust for Carmen. Alas, it’s Carmen’s sensuality that wins out and the first act ends with her escape.
American mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko is a natural as the free-spirited, hyper sexual Carmen. She parlays her natural elegance, beauty and exquisite movement to the role of the tempestuous gypsy who taunts and torments her lover, Don José. She possesses the vocal and physical attributes that this role demands.

Indian-American tenor Alok Kumar is superb in perhaps the only multi-dimensional role of the accursed Don José. As he is drawn under Carmen’s spell, he becomes consumed with jealousy; he is smitten, subjugated, humiliated and eventually rejected, yet returns to her begging for more. Mr. Kumar is in fine voice throughout, but it’s his acting in the final ‘death’ scene that is so compelling.

Perhaps one of the few flaws in Carmen is that we see so little of Micaëla. Toronto-based soprano Jonelle Sills returns to Vancouver Opera to reprise her role from the 2021 production Carmen: Up Close and Personal: Bizet juxtaposes the character of Micaëla with that of Carmen and Ms. Sills warmth and sensitivity serves as a counterpoint to Carmen’s guile. She demonstrates her character’s vulnerability in her plaintive third act solo aria Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante. Frightened and alone inside the smuggler's camp, she prays for courage.

In the supporting roles, baritone Nathan Keoughan delivers a confident and charismatic performance as Don José’s rival, Escamille. There was just a hint of camp in his rendition of Votre toast, je peux vous le render (The Toreador's Song) that captivated him to the audience.

I personally enjoyed the wry performances of Calgarian soprano Heidi Duncan and Vancouver mezzo-soprano Simran Claire as Carmen’s cohorts Frasquita and Mercèdés (respectively). Their second act sparkling terzetto with Sarah Mesko, Les tringles des sisters tinaient was a memorable high-point. Both are currently members of the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program which is led by Leslie Dala.

Maestro Leslie Dala leads the Vancouver Opera Orchestra with expression and verve in a stellar performance of Bizet’s free-flowing score. The Children Chorus’ charming, well rehearsed first act performance of the cheerful Avec la garde montante is definitely high calibre.

Gary McCann’s finely crafted clothing and four elaborate sets: the town square, Lillas Pastia’s tavern, the smuggler’s hide-out and the bull ring periphery bring an extra level of quality to the production. Bizet’s Carmen is the final production in Vancouver Opera’s current season. Rachel Peake’s faithful direction has certainly raised a few bars for the 2024-25 season.

© 2024 John Anthony Jane