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SCRUTINY | French Mezzo Clémentine Margaine A Stunning COC Carmen

By Joseph So on April 22, 2016

Karine Boucher as Micaëla and David Pomeroy as Don José in the Canadian Opera Company production of Carmen, 2016. (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Karine Boucher as Micaëla and David Pomeroy as Don José in the Canadian Opera Company production of Carmen, 2016. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Carmen By George Bizet. Presented by The Canadian Opera Company (COC) at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. W., until May 16. www.coc.ca or (416) 363-8231.

The first production of the Canadian Opera Company’s spring season, Carmen, opened last week at the Four Seasons Centre for a long 13-show run. I attended opening night and heard some great singing. Last evening was the first of six “alternate cast” performances with four new principals. The only voice new to the COC audience was young French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine. Born in 1984 in Narbonne, France, Margaine at 32 has already established herself as a definitive Carmen, having sung this role in Berlin, Munich, Rome, Naples, Washington, and Dallas. She’s slated to take it to the Metropolitan Opera next season.

Margaine shares the role with another great Carmen, Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili, who has previously sung it with the COC back in 2010. At the time, I was blown away by her huge voice and larger than life stage persona. Rachvelishvili’s return last season as Dulcinée in Don Quichotte only solidified the earlier impression that she’s an exceptional artist.

With the two great singers side by side, a comparison is inevitable. To be honest, I find them very different, each amazing in her own way. Without a doubt, Margaine is a stunning Carmen, and I’ve seen many over the years, from Horne to Berganza to Baltsa to Crespin. More recently, Antonacci and Garanca made strong impressions.  To my eyes and ears, Margaine’s Carmen is among the most idiomatic and balanced in terms of voice, musicality and theatricality.

She has charisma in spades — you can’t take your eyes off her. Her Gypsy is alluring and impetuous, but never crude or vulgar. The voice is gleaming and opulent, with plenty of volume and power, completely even up and down the scale, with no discernible break between head and chest registers. By the end of Act 4, she has made a believer out of me. The audience certainly thought so, giving her the biggest ovations of the evening. The COC should bring her back as soon as possible.

Joseph So

The other three artists of the alternate cast are well-known. Don Jose is Canadian tenor David Pomeroy. A former COC Ensemble member, Pomeroy has established himself on the international stage. His warm tenor with its solid top proved a good match for Margaine, and the two have excellent chemistry. Last evening, he was at his best in Acts 3 and 4, where the more verismo style showed off his voice and temperament.  Their final scene together burned up the stage.

As Micaela, Canadian soprano and current COC Ensemble artist Karine Boucher combined a charming and sympathetic portrayal with solid vocalism, a rather pronounced vibrato notwithstanding. Baritone Zachary Nelson, Masetto in Don Giovanni last season, returned as Escamillo, a role I had previously heard him sing this role at the Semperoper Dresden.  On this occasion, his Toreador Song was nicely sung if somewhat underpowered.

All the supporting roles were ably taken by present or former COC Ensemble Studio artists. Good to have both bass Alain Coulombe and baritone Peter Barrett back with the Company after an absence. Coulombe reprised Zuniga which he sang back in 2005, while Barrett switched from Dancaïre to Morales. Also noteworthy was the contributions by baritone Iain MacNeil (Dancaïre) and tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure (Remendado). Soprano Sasha Djihanian made a particularly saucy Frasquita while mezzo Charlotte Burrage (Mercedes) was more ladylike, the perfect foil for the tempestuous Carmen. They joined forces for a lively Act Two Quintet. The chorus is extremely important in Carmen and the COC forces was a pleasure throughout. Paolo Carignani led the Orchestra in a fluent if brisk reading of the familiar score.

This 2005 co-production with Opera de Montreal was originally directed by Mark Lamos with sets by Michael Yeargan. It could not have been easy for Canadian director Joel Ivany, known for his cutting edge re-imaginings of the standard repertoire, to take over someone else’s vision, given the physical limitations imposed by the fixed sets. The result is only a partial success. For example, the iron gate in Act One severely limits the staging area, negatively impacting on the blocking, particularly involving the children’s chorus. Acts Two and Three work slightly better, but the overall “feel” of the staging is under-energized and tradition-bound. Only in Act Four with its novel stage entrances does Ivany managed to break free of the constraints to show what he can do, helped in no small way by a searing confrontation scene between Margaine and Pomeroy. They ignited the proceedings and brought the audience to its collective feet at the end.

Future performances on April 23, 28, 30, May 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15 at the Four Seasons Centre. Details here.


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Joseph So

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