Carmen
Catherine Daniel (Carmen) and Martin Renner Wallace (Don José) in Little Opera Company’s La Tragédie de Carmen. Photo: Heather Milne

The Little Opera Company wrapped up its 2017/18 season with British theatre director Peter Brook’s radical adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen. His distilled version, La Tragédie de Carmen, pierces the heart of Prosper Mérimée’s original novella with the rapier acuity of a bullfighter’s sword.

But the production also trumpeted the auspicious directing debut of celebrated Canadian coloratura soprano Tracy Dahl. Still a highly sought-after singer, her upcoming engagements include a reprise of her Despina in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, in Feb. 2018. Last year she was appointed to the Order of Canada.

Music director Tadeusz Biernacki led a 10-piece orchestra through Marius Constant’s condensed score. Dahl’s vision sets the action in the early years of the Franco regime during the 1930s, with period costumes by Robert Butler, choreography by Odette Heyn and fight direction by Rachel Hiebert. Minimalist sets designed by Sean McMullen included mobile door frames and simple wooden tables and benches evoking tavern, to cave, to prison cell. The intimate Théâtre Cercle Molière, tucked away in the heart of Winnipeg’s historic St. Boniface, was cleverly morphed into a Spanish bullring in the round, its seats re-configured with sight lines clearly and thoughtfully considered. Hearing Jean-Claude Carriere’s added French dialogue (with English surtitles) in the city’s only professional Francophone theatre added another meta-layer of verismo.

Brook’s boiled-down version strips away the full trappings of grand opera spectacle, excising Bizet’s legendary choruses of ragtag Roma (“gypsies”), cigarette factory girls and gruff smugglers that surprisingly, are hardly missed. Its compact cast comprised of just four singers (its leading women both Dahl protégés) plus two actors who are tasked to carry the 90-minute opera sans intermission, further intensifying the narrative’s momentum.

Mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniel brought smoky allure to her Carmen, toying with tenor Martin Renner Wallace’s Don José in her opening declaration, “L’amour,” during the iconic Habanera, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle.” She proved herself unafraid to let her hair down—literally—infusing her character with a raw sensuality when she suggestively nipped off the filter of her cigarette and even crawling atop soprano Jessica Kos-Whicher’s guileless Micaëla during their early catfight. Carmen’s aria “Pres des remparts de Seville,” was sung with local actor/tenor Raymond Sokalski as innkeeper Lillas Pastia watching her every stealthy move. This was performed with relish and ringing high notes, as was her seductive “Halte-la! Je vais danser,” accompanied by Biernacki’s clacking castanets.

Carmen
Catherine Daniel (Carmen) and Raymond Sokalski (Garcia) in Little Opera Company’s La Tragédie de Carmen. Photo: Heather Milne

Wallace compellingly crafted Don José’s deadly downward trajectory. He sang “La fleur que tu m’avais jétée,” (the ‘Flower Song’) with lyrical phrasing and clear diction; his upper range particularly strong and true. His surrendering of his soldier’s uniform as though a carapace further heightened the character’s emotional vulnerability—in this version, as much his ill-fated tale as is Carmen’s.

As one of the show’s two actors, Donald Larsen made every moment of his relatively brief stage time count as Zuninga, sneering and leering his way into Carmen’s favours until slain by Don José.

Baritone David Klassen crafted a wonderfully charismatic Escamillo, who puffs and preens with machismo swagger. His resonant vocals enthralled during his iconic “Toreador Song” and later in the duet “Si tu m’aimes, Carmen” sung with Daniel, now resplendent in full matador regalia.

Carmen
David Klassen (Escamillo) and Catherine Daniel (Carmen) in Little Opera Company’s La Tragédie de Carmen. Photo: Heather Milne

Dahl’s sensitive direction responded organically to several of the venue’s non-opera-friendly challenges, including heavy, acoustic-dampening curtains that hung around the circumference of the ‘bullring.’ It became utterly fascinating to see flashes of Dahl’s trademark wit and humour embedded within the production, such as Don José s comically pushing a galvanized steel bucket under the dying Zuninga’s head as he ‘bleeds out.’

More stage business would have been welcomed, especially during the series of musical interludes in which set pieces were moved by the cast. It also became more than a little jarring (and arguably sacrilegious) to hear Marius Constant’s intended recorded excerpts from Bizet’s original score—including its fiery overture that makes a cameo appearance near the end—segue into the live orchestra, despite all best attempts at seamless transitions.

Finally, these are larger-than-life characters living on the razor’s edge—a more complete physical embodiment of character, including more grunts and gasps during the often overly polite fight scenes, would have produced a greater visceral impact. Using a real rose in lieu of dollar store plastic would have been more effective, especially when every detail is seen in such an up-close-and-personal venue.

Still, kudos to Winnipeg’s second oldest opera company for presenting the Manitoba premiere of Brook’s fascinating re-imagining of this enduring classic. And especially for introducing audiences to Canadian opera treasure Dahl in her newest role as stage director. This next chapter in her already brilliant opera career seems as fated as Carmen’s cards of destiny, and will be watched with interest in the years to come.