Review: The Canadian Opera Company Presents Georges Bizet’s ‘Carmen’

Returning to the Canadian Opera Company stage this spring is one of the world’s most famous operas, Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Canadian director Joel Ivany, of Toronto’s cutting-edge collective Against the Grain Theatre, brings a fresh look to this masterpiece of lyric theatre when it comes to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Italian conductor Paolo Carignani is at the helm of Bizet’s passionate score. Carmen was last presented by the COC in 2010 and returns to the Four Seasons Centre for 13 performances on April 12, 17, 20, 23, 28, 30, May 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 2016. Carmen is sung in French with English SURTITLESTM.

Carmen is a highly charged melodrama about an irresistible gypsy, Carmen, and her seduction of a young soldier.

At the time of the opera’s premiere in Paris in 1875, it was condemned in the press as too immoral to be staged; Carmen marked the first time in opera that a female character could flout morality and still remain the heroine of the work. It is now consistently ranked as one of the most produced operas in the world.

Internationally renowned conductor Paolo Carignani, last in the COC’s orchestra pit for Tosca in 2012, returns to lead the COC Orchestra, Chorus and an exciting cast through a tantalizing score of popular melodies. From Carmen’s alluring teasing in “Habanera” and the swaggering machismo of Escamillo’s “Toreador Song” to the desperate pleading of Don José’s “Flower Song” and Micaëla’s innocence and quiet strength in the aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante,” the music drives the drama and action of Carmen forward and lays bare the deep well of emotions at play between Bizet’s characters. The end result leaves no question as to the opera’s universal appeal.

Joel Ivany makes his COC main stage directing debut in this revival of the COC’s production of Carmen, which premiered in 2005 and was last presented in 2010. He brings to the work a fresh new staging already hailed as a “visceral treat” (Vancouver Sun) offering a “human take that engages and entertains as much as it provokes” (Vancouver Straight) when Vancouver Opera presented the COC production in fall 2014 with Ivany directing. His staging is set against the colourful, sun baked landscape of 1940s Latin America with sets and costumes designed by Michael Yeargan and François St-Aubin, respectively. New to the production’s 2016 revival are two up-and-coming, innovative Toronto-based artists who frequently collaborate with Ivany: lighting designer Jason Hand and set and costume design co-ordinator Camellia Koo, making their COC main stage debuts.

Two mezzo-sopranos making a specialty of the lead role bring Carmen to life at the COC: Georgian Anita Rachvelishvili (April 12, 17, 23, 30, May 4, 6, 13) and France’s Clémentine Margaine (April 20, 28, May 8, 10, 12, 15). Rachvelishvili returns to the COC after 2014’s Don Quichotte and 2010’s Carmen to bring her “smoldering, earthy sexuality” (New York Times) once more to the Four Seasons Centre. Internationally renowned, she has sung Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera and Royal Opera House Covent Garden, among others. Margaine has been hailed “a dream voice for the passionate but mercurial Gypsy” (Dallas Morning News), singing Carmen with Dallas Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma and Washington National Opera. After her Canadian debut with the COC, she goes on to sing Carmen in future seasons at the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Opera Bastille in Paris.

As Carmen’s jealous lover, Don José, the COC welcomes the return of two tenors: American Russell Thomas and Ensemble Studio graduate David Pomeroy. One of the most exciting vocal and dramatic talents on the international opera and concert scene, described as “nothing short of sensational” (The Telegraph), Thomas follows up his star turn in the COC’s 2012 production of The Tales of Hoffmann with a role debut performance as the young soldier who attempts to tame Carmen. Pomeroy returns to the COC after recent performances in 2012’s Die Fledermaus and 2009’s Madama Butterfly. He’s been called a “magnetic” Don José by Belgian Operaguide, his voice “fresh…with a particularly gratifying bloom” (Philadelphia Inquirer), reaching “the demanding high notes with smooth ease…totally compelling as a ruined man” (Winnipeg Free Press).

In the role of the toreador Escamillo are the powerful voices of American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn and American baritone Zachary Nelson. They make welcome returns to the COC after recent company outings: Van Horn for his performances in 2013’s La Bohème and 2012’s Tosca, and Nelson for 2015’s Don Giovanni.

Sharing the role of the peasant girl Micaëla are two standout Canadian sopranos. COC Ensemble Studio graduate Simone Osborne returns to the COC, after 2014’s Falstaff, on the heels of a 14-city U.S. concert tour with the Metropolitan Opera’s Rising Stars Concert Series. Osborne is joined by emerging opera talent, Ensemble Studio soprano Karine Boucher, whose “gorgeous, womanly voice” (Schmopera) recently sang Susanna in the Ensemble Studio performance of The Marriage of Figaro.

Rounding out the cast are former and current members of the COC Ensemble Studio. Bass Alain Coulombe is Zuniga, Don José’s captain, and baritone Peter Barrett sings the role of Moralès, an officer under Zuniga’s command. Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Burrage and soprano Sasha Djihanian are Carmen’s gypsy friends Mercédès and Frasquita. Ensemble Studio bass-baritone Iain MacNeil and Ensemble Studio tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure are the smugglers, Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado.


Single tickets for Carmen range from $50 – $435 and are available online at, by calling 416-363-8231, or in person at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts Box Office (145 Queen St. W.). For more information on specially priced tickets available to young people under the age of 15, standing room, Opera Under 30 presented by TD Bank Group, student groups and rush seating, visit


Oddly, the evening we catch ‘Carmen’ at the Canadian Opera Company is the night Beyonce drops her latest musical offering ‘Lemonade’ to the world.  Perfect timing!  Beyonce is no stranger to ‘Carmen’.   She curated  ‘Carmen:  A Hip Hopera’  with “Habanera” as a place setting a few years back and introduced a whole new generation to its exquisiteness.   Bizet would have been proud.

With Queen Bey’s ‘Carmen’ in the air, The Canadian Opera Company’s ‘Carmen’ is also one to be savoured.  It is the people’s opera.  Full of ornate production, costuming popping with colour reminiscent of Frida Kahlo, electricity on the stage with an abundant chorus that instantly transports you to a heat, sexiness and allure from a dusty past.  The interactive dalliances with the chorus on stage and their audience was mesmerizing and authentic.  The score was rich, cohesive and as Beyonce would say, worthy of a ‘slay’ with a Spanish navaja if you are not careful.

As Director, Joel Ivany states ‘For me, what has allowed this piece to endure through the years, from 1875 to the present, are the real characters in real situations. Now more than ever, this piece is a reminder of the freedom that we all enjoy and also the chains that we can find ourselves bound by. We desire passion and uninhibited living, but must have certain constraints to maintain order within our lives. We see ourselves in the gentle, yet strong, spirit of Micaëla; our inhibitions are brought out through Don José; our passion is felt through Carmen; and our self-absorbed, “selfie” urges are seen through Escamillo. This opera can be like looking in a mirror.’

The Canadian Opera Company’s has created a ‘Carmen’ that is accessible, introspective and for every palate.  ‘Carmen’ will challenge your moral code; encourage you to ponder where you are with your own relationships.  Those particular relationships that trouble us, make us giddy, ones we should let go of and perhaps some we need to infuse with more energy and light.

Georgian Anita Rachvelishvili and American Russell Thomas will make you swoon with reflection.  Operatic talent’s so mind blowing that you will feel their wrath as they glide up to the stage from the audience in Act IV.  Carmen and Don Jose’s love is torrid, fraught with pain, confusion and contempt although blanketed under the excitement, joyous colour and smiles of the occasion in the corrida.  Anita Rachvelishvili and Russell Thomas will make you believers in ‘Carmen’ and leave her story emblazoned in your memory until you meet again.

The Canadian Opera Company has again created staging that is luxe, gritty, seductive and awe inspiring.  The grandiosity of wooden stadium seating  for the chorus to watch a bull fight, lingering moments outside of a cigar factory with factory workers as they exhaled tobacco on a break and an ominous jail with iron gates so menacing you cannot help but wince in your seat.

With Mother’s Day around the corner, find time to reconnect with your mother or loved one in your life with this fantastic piece of musical theatre from the Canadian Opera Company. ‘Carmen’ won’t be here long – but the musical messaging, the romance and ‘lemonade’ like drama only Bizet could do with such finesse and intrigue will leave you with something to talk about long after you have left the Four Seasons of The Performing Arts.

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