Review: Enthralling ‘Carmen’ marks a triumphant return for the Saskatoon Opera

Simona Genga plays the titular character of Saskatoon Opera's production of 'Carmen' in 2022. Photo by Tim Yaworski.

There’s a lot of clichés in the writer’s toolbox to describe a show that’s good — calling it a ‘revolution,’ or a ‘triumph,’ or a ‘tour de force.”

But director Anna Theodosakis said before opening night that they wanted to avoid clichés and stereotypes in this production of Georges Bizet’s classic opera Carmen. So let’s be plain:

The Saskatoon Opera was coming off a three-year hiatus. They needed a big show, so they chose the iconic Carmen. And the entire company rose to the occasion in exquisite fashion on Saturday. 

Conductor Maria Fuller had the orchestra and ensemble at the best the Saskatoon Opera has seen in years. The chorus flowed seamlessly in and out of scenes both physically and musically. All of the supporting actors were picture-perfect in their roles. 

And the cherries on top of the enjoyable group effort were the magnificent and gut-wrenching performances of Ian Cleary as Don José and Simona Genga as Carmen herself. 

This was not Carmen as it’s been performed a thousand times by companies around the world. Theodosakis wanted the characters to be more nuanced, stripping away Carmen’s oversexualization and making her a complete person while highlighting the problematic parts of her relationship with Don José (before the rather bloody conclusion). 

Cleary’s turn as spurned lover Don José was chillingly intense, and his portrayal of the soldier as an abusive partner throughout the middle acts was one of many creative — if intentionally unsettling — character choices. 

And Genga’s performance as the titular character felt refreshingly real. Strong without being sexualized and independent without being callous, Genga deserves tremendous credit for bringing a deeper and more sympathetic Carmen to the stage — and for singing a fantastic “Habanera.”

The supporting performers, like Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès (Jardena Gertler-Jaffe and Oli Guselle) and officer Zuniga (Chris Kelly) each had their moments to shine in the spotlight and ran with them. 

But a few extra plaudits should go to Danika Lorèn as José’s childhood friend Micaëla and Luka Kawabata as the suave Escamillo. Lorèn injected innocence and humanity into an otherwise dark and tragic opera, and Kawabata commanded the stage every time he appeared. His effortless confidence and beautiful baritone made for an iconic performance as the braggadocious bullfighter. 

Was the production completely flawless? No show ever is. While the fight scenes were quite slick overall — especially between Don José and Escamillo — the blood effects were never applied smoothly or to much great effect until the waning moments of the opera. Even though the well-designed costumes had us living firmly in the early 2000s (along with a clever urban-industrial style set), the modern setting didn’t have any significant impact on the show besides aesthetics. And the average attire of the early 2000s is not the most exciting style to begin with. 

There were also a few scenes that could have used more energy from the chorus to accompany their beautiful singing. That stiffness wore off over time, so we can attribute it to shaking off first-show jitters. 

But these are small nits to pick in a well-performed show. The orchestra was tight throughout under Fuller’s steady hand, and the ensemble was a genuine treat to see and hear. 

Not only is this the first time the Saskatoon Opera has been on stage in years (thanks, COVID-19), but it’s also some of the absolutely best we’ve seen from the company in recent memory. You don’t want to miss out.

The remaining performances of Carmen take place at 7:30 p.m. on June 14 and 16, and at 3:00 p.m. on June 18 at Persephone Theatre.

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