Opening Saturday, January 30th at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Carmen is the most popular work from late French composer Georges Bizet. Director Maria Lamont’s commitment to capturing the soul and breadth of Bizet’s source material is as evident as soldier Don José’s (Jeffrey Gwaltney) desire to win the heart of Carmen (Geraldine Chauvet) – the sultry gypsy and original femme fatale.
Perhaps the reason Carmen succeeds so spectacularly is due to every facet of the performance genuinely feeling like it belongs in 20th-century Spain. To be fair, this first time theatergoer has no idea what battalions of soldiers, swarms of peasants, and bullfighters wore in the early 1930s, but that isn’t the point. Each detailed backdrop and medal-pinned military uniform created by scenery designer Camellia Koo and costume designer Deanna Finnman emanated authenticity. It is also important to note that the hot and humid landscapes and related costumes were all created in a world removed, right here in icy Edmonton.
The music of Carmen is widely acclaimed for its synergy of melody, harmony, and inescapable atmosphere. I prefer experiencing movies with no prior knowledge of the plot, and thus I extended my first opera the same courtesy. Having not done my homework, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had heard most of Carmen’s songs before and, after a quick YouTube search, I am sure the same is true for you (“Habanera” is the safest bet). Rest assured, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Dala, is on point as usual and delivers all the melodic highs and lows of a performance that broke new ground in the French opera scene when it premiered in 1875.
I must admit, I shared the common misconception that operas were boring and a relic of a bygone era. I went into the performance and found myself annoyed that the subtitles were on top of the screen, and I was initially unable to follow the plot as closely as I would have liked. However, as I became immersed in the world and characters of Carmen, I experienced no further issues thanks to Gwaltney and Chauvet almost eliminating the need for subtitles through their convincing and passionate performances.
This is not your grandparents’ opera: Carmen thrust us into a world of sex, murder, gypsies, immoral behavior, and the seedy lives of the proletariat. Regardless, despite all the racy subject matter that alienated French audiences at its initial release over a century ago, Carmen still demands all the respect, dignity, and beauty that one would expect from an opera.
Carmen plays in Edmonton on January 30th, and February 2nd and 4th.
Photography courtesy of Nanc Price.