A blundering cinematic touch in Charles Binamé’s Carmen

Our review of the Quebec filmmaker’s production of Georges Bizet’s classic opera.

Krista De Silva (Carmen). Photo by Yves Renaud

Georges Bizet’s opera tells the story of a soldier, Don José, who deserts both the military and a doting woman from his hometown (Micaëla) to follow a Roma woman (Carmen) into an itinerant life ill-suited to him. Fickle Carmen meanwhile turns her attentions to a swarthy bullfighter, Escamillo, and jealousy-crazed Don José stabs Carmen to death.

From the earliest moments in Charles Binamé’s production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen,  I had doubts. In the first act, why are these female cigarette factory workers dressed in pristine flouncy dresses? Why are they flirting with the soldiers and not the other way around, as the libretto suggests? Moreover, despite ostensibly relaxing and watching the crowds go by, the chorus of soldiers stood at a fidgety attention.

Binamé is a filmmaker first and, notably, this production will be filmed. Knowing this, certain among the production’s missteps, in particular in terms of lighting design and choral direction, give the sinking impression that the stagecraft is being sacrificed for the filmed final product, but with nearly 3,000 seats for people to witness the live performance each night, that seems like a skewed priority.

As for Carmen herself, poor Krista De Silva sounded literally breathless from the beginning. A friend pointed out that the role is in the mezzo-soprano range, and that for a soprano the lower notes can hover just out of reach. De Silva’s lower register sounded huskily sucked up and away from us. Similarly, De Silva’s physical form was lost in a black dress that camouflaged her against the chorus. When she was in full focus, her character’s seductiveness presented itself in a constant peculiar crouch. It was the macho squat of a drunk: authoritative in a way, though definitely not beguiling, and a mannerism that grew very tired as the acts wore on. At its worst it was a reminder of the witchy parody of female sensuality that Juliette Binoche gave us in High Life.

Antoine Bélanger, as Don José, while unremarkable in his romantic scenes, brought enough brutishness to the final moments of his relationship with Carmen to leave a lingering impression of fear. Don José’s character is sentimental and irresolute, but the physical abuse (and murder) that comes to characterize his jealousy still felt like a meaningful and contemporary expression of male violence.

Two of the smaller principal roles, however, were far more memorable. The toreador Escamillo (Christopher Dunham), dressed as Westworld’s answer to Prince, was the only singer to give as impeccable a tonality to his speaking parts as to his singing. Dunham also struck the right note of foolhardy yet libidinous glamour.

In particular, France Bellemare was a commanding Micaëla. Of the two main female parts, Micaëla’s is the greater performative challenge. Micaëla’s character is always bringing hand-wringing word to Don José of his mother and his homeland, and it would be easy for her to exude a tragic rural meekness, but Bellemare held a compelling sway throughout.

Now, whatever you feel for the romantic stakes in Carmen, the lead-up to Carmen’s death at the hands of Don José is highly anticipated. Yet, as Don José stabs Carmen, none other than a bright red triangular flag unfurls from the rafters. This kind of belligerent symbolism could only make sense in a production that favoured a kind of spare abstraction, which Binamé’s emphatically does not. To make things worse, the red flag is afterwards awkwardly tied to Carmen’s dead body, as if the symbolic link wasn’t already blindingly clear. My eyebrows spontaneously arched to their full incredulous forehead reach.

Carmen is one of the most popular operas, and that’s in part because it’s fun and accessible and possessive of some very catchy melodies, some of which you doubtless know, such as “Toreador Song.” But, for a fun opera, there is something stodgily amiss here. ■

Carmen continues at Place des Arts’s Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier (175 Ste-Catherine W.) on May 7, 9, 11, & 13, 7:30 p.m., from $99 (with subscription)