Sproule sings a rich, effortless Carmen in VictoriaReview
Pacific Opera Victoria’s season opener for 2022 is Carmen, taking a traditional look at a very traditional opera, but with a few excellent updates. While the Bizet tale is purely fictional, the people that he describes are very real. The Romani people, often called Roma, are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group who have been subjected to untold discrimination for centuries, though most might recognize them by another name, which I won’t mention here. That name has been seen for a very long time as a pejorative and a racial slur (despite its all-too-common usage), and as such, POV made the very well-researched decision to eliminate it from all its programming, surtitles, and printed materials. An excellent choice which I highly applaud and hope becomes an industry standard.
That aside, this production of Carmen is very typical, with the setting in 1900s-ish Spain, with costuming varying from 1890s-1940s. The set design in the production was simple but very well-executed, with large pieces that could be rotated to depict the Tavern, the Bullring, or the city square with beautiful design. The set painting in particular was subtle yet very effective, with small accents and signage that looked perfectly placed for each setting.
In the title role of the seductive Carmen was Canadian mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule. While Carmen is a role which so many mezzos (and even sopranos!) want to tackle, its range is incredibly low, making it a very challenging sing for anyone. Sproule could not have made the role look more effortless. With a voice as warm and full as it is beautiful, she sailed through the most challenging pieces from the lowest to the highest with absolute ease. This is Carmen as it was intended to be sung, by a voice with a massive amount of depth, that is luxurious and rich. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone perform it better, and I hope this becomes the staple of Sproule’s repertoire.
The ill-fated, hapless Don José was performed by tenor Adam Luther who, despite having a significant illness, performed the role very well. His brilliant, bright tenor was a beautiful contrast to Sproule’s darker mezzo, and the two were a pleasure to watch.
Baritone Jorell Williams as Escamillo was understated, rather than the strutting-peacock showing off for the crowds, he was gentle and amiable, with a vocal warmth that was seductive and beautiful.
The duo of Dancaïro and Remendado, played by baritone Geoffrey Schellenberg and Asitha Tennekoon respectively were the comic relief of a show that can easily become far too serious. Schellenberg in particular was very funny, trying to herd his mischievous band around with little success, his beautiful baritone in contrast to his funny, long-suffering character.
Frasquita and Mercédès, in turn, played by soprano Andrea Nuñez and mezzo Marjorie Maltais respectively, were clever and canny, tackling the very difficult ensembles with humour and brilliance. Nuñez in particular was very funny in the card trio with her exclamation “il meurt!” and had the whole audience laughing at her comedy and loving her clarion voice.
The only drawbacks in this production were directorial. Very little movement or action was given to principals and chorus alike, and most scenes were very stationary. During the tavern scene, the female chorus members were wandering around in their underwear and rolling around on the floor of the tavern, which took away from the other action on the stage. The whole conceit felt needlessly exploitative and confusing, especially with an entire stage of fully-dressed men.
In addition, the few fights that were staged did not feel authentic, and the production could have benefited greatly from an intimacy director to bring the more romantic scenes to life. The final confrontation between Don José and Carmen was almost completely static - a scene that is supposed to be tempestuous and passionate to the point of murder instead felt anti-climactic, with the actors being given little to no action or direction to bring the passion that the scene deserves. The amount of talent on the stage could have the scenes absolutely sparkle with more intentional direction and movement.
The Victoria Symphony under the direction of Timothy Vernon in his final season with Pacific Opera Victoria led the ensemble with subtlety and depth. The orchestra underscored each moment perfectly, with a difficult score that felt light and bubbling, or dark and dramatic in equal measure.