Review: Carmen (Canadian Opera Company)

Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen (centre) as Alain Coulombe as Zuniga looks on (at left) in the Canadian Opera Company production of Carmen, 2016. Conductor Paolo Carignani, director Joel Ivany, set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer François St-Aubin, lighting designer Jason Hand, and set & costume design co-ordinator Camellia Koo. Photo: Michael CooperThe COC presents a stunning and innovative Carmen, now on stage in Toronto

The Canadian Opera Company’s 1994 production of Carmen was the first opera I ever saw. The breathtaking lyricism and emotional complexity of George Bizet’s 1875 masterpiece played a key role in inspiring a life-long love of opera. The Canadian Opera Company’s current production lived up to my high expectations for this beloved work. The staging and interpretation of the text also revealed that a lot has changed in the opera world in the last 22 years, and included some choices that probably would not have been considered in 1994.  

Carmen tells the story of a beautiful, seductive Romani woman who refuses to be tamed by the men she beguiles. Her lover Don Jose chooses obsession over duty and gives up everything for Carmen, only to lose her to a more dashing suitor, the bullfighter Escamillo. The story is very much the story of the people, of peasants, soldiers, and heroes of the people.

Stage design clearly reflected the proletarian themes of the opera, using a rich and carefree colour palette, with simple lines and angles dominating. The café (a haven for artists, misfits, and outlaws) for example looked much like one you might find down a laneway in Kensington market today.  The simple yet stylish costumes situated us very clearly in 1940s Cuba.

And at the centre of it all of course was Carmen, in soft fabrics that clung to a curvaceous physique ideal for the role. Not only does Anita Rachvelishvili look the part, her bold, creamy mezzo-soprano voice fits the role like a glove. She is no stranger to the role and her ability to step into the femme fatale’s skin was evident.

Her first notes in this opera are among the most famous in the genre, the habanera “L’Amour est un oiseau rebelle.” Opening with an aria so recognizable comes with a lot of expectations. Ms. Rachvelishvili made us feel as though we were hearing the aria for the first time. Each and every one of her hearty, sensual low notes in Seguidilla struck me right in the solar plexus.

Tenor Russell Thomas in the role of the dutiful Don Jose was equally inspiring. His voice has a fresh, verdant quality, combined with exquisite power. Mr. Thomas managed the considerable magnitude of his voice, singing high notes with the ease and freedom that is necessary for the atmosphere of this opera, while fully committing to the complexity of the role.  I was fully enthralled by every note of his journey through duty, passion, jealousy, obsession, and ultimately violence and remorse.

Baritone Christian Van Horne is a spectacular singer, but his body language is what struck me most about his performance. Every posture, and gesture complemented what he was doing vocally and masterfully brought to life the larger-than-life bullfighter, the rock star of his time. The hyper-masculine aspect of his character has the potential to translate poorly to modern audiences, but Van Horne’s performance tempered this by drawing out the heart of gold beneath the machismo exterior.

Joel Ivany, artistic director for Against the Grain Theatre, made his directorial debut for the COC with this production. The spirit of innovation and making opera accessible to modern audiences for which Against the Grain is known shone through is this production. I will remember the bull fighting scene which opens the final act for the next 22 years. The audience became part of the bullfight as performers entered from the back of the house, selling concessions. The technique of dismantling the fourth wall by having some of the action take place in the house and performers interacting with the audience has been a staple in straight theatre for quite some time. It happens in opera basically never; this is the first time I have seen this happen. It was so effective in this scene that I was baffled as to why this technique is not exploited in opera more often.

Ivany was also unafraid to be flexible with his interpretation of the libretto, turning the final scene into a painfully intimate moment between two regular people whose relationship was doomed by societal obligations, and the need to control women’s sexuality.

Carmen is operatic easy-listening at its finest, and tackles some complex and timeless subject matter. I will be humming some of the catchy and moving melodies for several weeks. Go see it! If you aren’t already, it may make an opera lover out of you.


  • Carmen is playing until May 15 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
  • Show times are 7:30 PM on April 20, 23, 28, May 4, 6, 10, 12, & 13 with additional matinees on April 17, 30, May 8 & 15 at 2 PM and April 30 at 4:30.
  • Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
  • Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653)

Photo of Anita Rachvelishvili by Michael Cooper

3 thoughts on “Review: Carmen (Canadian Opera Company)”

  1. Your write of the emotional complexity of the opera, and yet give a very conventional read of the opera, “refuses to be tamed” etc. The character Carmen defines freedom as having sex with whomever she wants, and, at least in the case of Don Jose, to achieve a very specific goal – a get out of jail free card. Not sure what “love” has to do with it, to quote Ms Turner’s famous anthem. No question she strikes a blow for women’s sexual freedom. She behaves just like men do – or at least just like the ones women complain about! Guys like Don Juan whose delight in seduction is punished by death. Of course, unlike Carmen, everybody thinks he deserves to die.

    Carmen does menial labour in a cigarette factory, attacks another woman with a knife, and when she runs away to the “freedom” of the gypsy camp, the men treat her like all the other women – she gets to carry the bags. She dumps the lovestruck nobody whom she has ruined (the most moving love song in the opera is his) so she can have sex with the equivalent of a rock star – who no doubt will trade her in for a younger model once she loses her looks and sex appeal. How much of a challenge to the patriarchy’s power does this really represent? I’d love to see a Carmen who gets arrested for organizing the women in the factory, tells her gypsy pals to carry their own baggage and has desires that extend beyond being a WAG.

    Carmen is a great and complex opera. The music is beautiful and I’m sure Ivany’s staging, as always, will be brilliant and challenging. BTW, although you haven’t seen it before, having action take place in house has been done in European and smaller North American opera stagings for a while now. Happy Ivany has got the COC to catch up.

  2. Your excellent review will have many new and seasoned opera fans seeing and appreciating “Carmen” in a fresh new way. Thank you.

  3. This production in COC is the best i have seen! Even want to go back again to enjoy the performance!

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