Review: CARMEN Burns Bright in Canadian Opera Company's Latest Production

The COC production runs through November 4

By: Oct. 25, 2022
Review: CARMEN Burns Bright in Canadian Opera Company's Latest Production

Quite possibly one of the best known opera comiques, CARMEN has returned to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts' stage in a bright blaze. The Canadian Opera Company's production, last staged in 2016, tells the story of its namesake heroine Carmen (Rihab Chaieb), a desirable young woman who captures the eye of the young soldier Don Jose (Marcelo Puente). Their affair wreaks havoc on Jose's relationship with his family and former fiancee Micaela (Joyce El-Khoury) and career, as Carmen's desire for freedom drives Jose to madness and, eventually, murder.

Chaieb is stunning in the leading role, with a razor sharp presence that really suits the larger-than-life persona that Carmen has taken on in both the story, and in popular culture. She sings through the repertoire beautifully, but puts equally as much into her acting and delivery as she does her vocal performance to really sell the elusive, strong aspects of the character. Complimenting - and at times opposing - her, Puente's Don Jose is brilliant in that he shows the downfall of the soldier so effectively. It'd be easy to say that Don Jose's character becomes unlikeable because of his actions, but Puente puts in the time and consideration to add in little details throughout his performance, making his shift from respectable soldier to the obsessive, scorned ex-lover believable. His voice is strong throughout, and the final scene between Puente and Chaieb is goosebump-inducing thanks to both actors' work in establishing the story over its two-and-a-half hour runtime.

As the 'other woman' Micaela, El-Khoury is sweet when needed but shows great power in her vocals, proving the character's ambition to be brave when necessary. As the toreador Escamillo (Lucas Meachem) who sweeps in and helps to drive the wedge between Carmen and Jose, Meachem is one of the funnier presences in the show. He sings the iconic Toreador Song solidly, and makes for a charming celebrity in the story who hams up the role at all the right times.

The October 20 performance saw a slightly varied cast, with Midori Marsh and Queen Hezumuryango in the roles of Frasquita and Mercédès, respectively. Despite the latter two being announced at the start of the show as covering for fellow COC Ensemble members, both gave such stellar performances that it's hard to imagine they weren't the original cast members for the production; they're sweet supports to Carmen throughout, and performed a well-rounded Card Song alongside Chaieb.

The COC Ensemble rises to the occasion yet again in terms of both vocal performance and acting. Under conductor Jacques Lacombe, making his COC mainstage debut, the orchestra delivers Bizet's score beautifully. The widely-known music of CARMEN is a constant back-and-forth of boisterous and gentle, but with Lacombe and the COC Orchestra delivering it flows smoothly throughout. Essential to CARMEN is the physical relationship between its characters (fight and intimacy coordination by Siobhan Richardson), and is critical in ensuring the final scene (among many others) is gripping to the point of nearly being frightening.

The backdrop for CARMEN is stunning as characters are placed in realistic, rich environments and costumes that evoke mid-1900s Spain (original set design by Michael Yeargan, original costume design by Francois St. Aubin). The crowded alleyway bar feels the perfect amount of welcoming that the drama that unfolds there seems even more stark. The mountaintop ruins are dark, eerie, and beautiful. Despite the larger, more atmospheric settings, there were a few moments where the back half of the stage was blocked off, which caused the large group scenes to feel cramped. Lighting (lighting design by Jason Hand) enhances the scenes well, and in some cases the darkness of some areas really complements the story.

Joel Ivany's direction provides a CARMEN that holds true to the original story, while still creating unique moments that one might not expect at the opera. The fourth acts' toreador parade is incredibly engaging, if not a bit surprising when it begins. Given the enthusiastic response during the October 20 performance, it would seem that the reason the Canadian Opera Company continues to stage this specific production of CARMEN is clear. If it isn't broke, don't fix it - and with the power behind this telling of the classic love story-gone-wrong, there really isn't a need to change things up.

The Canadian Opera Company's CARMEN runs through November 4 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St W, Toronto.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit

Photo credit: Michael Cooper