Vancouver Opera's smoking Carmen Alok Kumar as Don José and Sarah Mesko as Carmen in Carmen, Vancouver Opera, 2024. Photo: Emily Cooper.

Vancouver Opera's smoking Carmen

Melissa Ratcliff

Smashing box office records for the long-standing company, Vancouver Opera made a huge splash with its season finale production of Carmen. Leading to rumours of people scalping tickets for way more than face value (!), this production absolutely packed houses for its long run.

Because of the challenge that the leading roles create to sing, the leads were double cast, with Sarah Mesko and Ginger Costa-Jackson alternating as Carmen, and Alok Kumar and Matthew White sharing the role of Don José. Mesko was brought in at the last minute to replace Carolyn Sproule who had to miss the production due to illness.

The opening night cast I attended featured Mesko and Kumar in the lead roles, set in a 1950s Spain.

A scene from Carmen, Vancouver Opera, 2024. Photo: Emily Cooper.

The sets, costumes, lighting, props were all phenomenal. The Act III forced-perspective warehouse set was stunning, and the huge billboards for “Escamillo” were a fantastic nod to the character’s popularity in the setting. The 50s costumes full of circle skirts, victory rolls and a ton of smoking were a great choice for the setting, and the matador/picador costumes were beautifully constructed. The whole setting was cohesive and lush, with so many details to everything on the stage.

A huge kudos goes to the VO production team, who removed ALL of the racist elements and racial slurs from the production and the surtitles (yes, the term g***y is a racial slur). No longer set as a racial stereotype, Carmen and her companions are, simply, smugglers. No need to give them a particular racial background and attribute that to their criminal behaviour, they just happen to be a group of people living outside the law. And not only was none of the racial elements missed, it made it a much more cohesive story, making Don José an outsider not because of his ethnicity, but because he represents the law they’re trying to evade.

Alok Kumar (Don José) and Sarah Mesko (Carmen) in Carmen, Vancouver Opera, 2024. Photo: Emily Cooper.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko as Carmen had a rich, dark low voice, well-suited to the role that can be notoriously low in the range. Her Carmen was stoic in the face of her ultimate death, foretold by the cards. Kumar as Don José was desperate and vicious in his desire for Carmen, but the chemistry between the two felt absent, and several of the love scenes and fights elicited laughter from the audience.

Jonelle Sills as Micaëla in Carmen, Vancouver Opera, 2024. Photo: Emily Cooper.

Jonelle Sills as Micaëla was lovely - the perfect, innocent ingenue, even dressed in the virginal blue and white. Her light, brilliant soprano was a great contrast to the huge choruses where she was being attacked, and she brought an almost childlike purity to the role, being so often caught completely over her head.

The strutting peacock of a matador that is Escamillo was played by baritone Nathan Keoughan. In this production, he’s basically James Dean - riding onstage in a motorcycle, dressed in a leather jacket and jeans, he’s portrayed as the quintessential bad boy to draw Carmen’s eye and Don José’s ire.

Nathan Keoughan as Escamillo in Carmen, Vancouver Opera, 2024. Photo: Emily Cooper.

The Queen Elizabeth Theatre is a notoriously difficult hall to sing in. Designed for huge touring acts with stacks of amplifiers, the acoustics are murder for opera and singers have to work so much harder to be heard. As such, smaller voices can get swallowed in the space. This was often the case in this production, particularly with the quintet of Carmen’s friends, all young artists, who had difficulty cutting through. While the enthusiasm of these performers was more than evident, the acoustics of the hall did them a great disservice, and was not setting them up for the success and confidence they need in the opera industry.

The VO Orchestra under the baton of Leslie Dala was impeccable, taking some difficult repertoire at a very brisk tempo, and underscoring all of the action with sensitivity and skill.

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