Having the title character’s leg brush up against your thigh is just one unique prospect in attending a Mercury Opera Carmen. The Edmonton company brings traditional opera into tight spaces, and the performers are apt to be singing and gesticulating their hearts out just inches from your ears.
After a single performance last summer in the southern Alberta badlands of Drumheller, artistic director Darcia Parada has brought Carmen to Edmonton for nine shows, the first of which ran Aug. 1st. I saw the third, featuring the primary cast.
Act I of this Carmen took place in a legendary downtown Edmonton greasy spoon, and then moved to a locally renowned strip club a couple of blocks east, a venue Mercury Opera has used for two previous productions, La traviata and La bohème. At the restaurant I was perched on a swiveling stool at the lunch counter, which was handy since the opening act made full use of the narrow eatery space from the kitchen in the back, right out onto the Jasper Avenue sidewalk.
In such close quarters, projection was no issue; in fact, chorus parts resounded off the memorabilia-covered walls, and the principals, scurrying back and forth behind the counter or seated at one of the tables in the packed, makeshift theatre, got their musical point across unhampered by a large orchestra or a voluminous space. Music Director Shannon Hiebert played from an electric keyboard parked at the front of the restaurant.
Mezzo Laura Virella (whose name was oddly missing from the program’s cast list) made a strong first impression as the restaurant server Carmen, and except for a bit of flagging towards the middle of the evening, she presented a very sexy, defiant femme fatale, indeed. Besides staging shows in eccentric venues, Parada has an eye for other quirky opportunities. Carmen sang her seductive “Seguidilla” to Don José, tauntingly clicking handcuffs instead of the traditional castanets. (Here, Don José is a U.S. border guard complete with flak jacket and Old Glory arm patch.)
Mercury Opera has had some bad luck with some singers’ vocal fitness. In La traviata two springs ago, the baritone playing Giorgio Germont was so vocally incapacitated that he was forced to mime his singing while a colleague dubbed in the sound. Unfortunately, in this Carmen, tenor Boris Derow as Don José missed the mark on many top notes, which was excruciatingly frustrating for him, no doubt, as it was anxiety-inducing for his listeners. He had a rough night, although he certainly delivered Don José’s passion and rage convincingly.
The rest of the cast—made up of a few pros, but mainly emerging artists based in Edmonton—was solid. Brazilian baritone Jorge Luiz Trabanco played Escamillo as a rodeo bull rider rather than a toreador, decked out in chaps, stetson, and a vest sporting numerous sponsor logos. He had the strut down, and his singing was strong, if a little understated for a self-adoring cowboy bursting with machismo.
Elise Noyes, who sang Micaëla, is a rookie with credits from small competitions and the University of Alberta. She made a strong impression with her entrance in Act I, literally coming in off the street looking for Don José. Later, when she discovers the gang of (in this production) drug manufacturers and dealers holed up in the mountains, her performance of “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante” was poised, if somewhat demure. The production made little of Don José’s early interest in the prim Micaëla.
Dacia Gramlick as Frasquita and Sandra Flores-Strand as Mercédès worked well together, injecting their own personal sensuality into the mix. In the Acts at the strip club, they had some sexy blocking up on the club’s bar that put the audience right in the middle of the transgressive mood of the work. And their spotlight fortune-telling trio with Carmen in Act III clicked, but wasn’t as girlishly playful as some performances I’ve seen.
Baritone Martin Galba (Zuniga) has numerous professional credits, including many with Edmonton Opera. He brought an energy to his role that exuded masculine self-assurance and a seasoned performer’s self-possession.
Once the show moved to the club, the accompaniment was supplemented with five woodwind and brass players, led by Hiebert. They made a clean, tight sound that added polished instrumental colour to the proceedings. There was nothing amateurish sounding about their contribution. Flutist Matthew McGuigan made an especially strong impression with his clean, clear exposed moments in the pared down score.
This Mercury Opera Carmen will also receive one performance at a saloon in Wayne, and a smokehouse in Calgary.