An Undercast and Faded Production Does Little for Bizet’s Masterpiece.
Georges Bizet. Carmen: Welsh National Opera on Tour / James Southall (conductor), Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno. 22.10.2014. (RJF)
Sung and Spoken in French with English and Welsh titles.
Carmen, Alessandra Volpe.
Don Jose, Peter Wedd.
Micaela, Jessica Muirhead.
Escamillo, Kostas Smoriginas.
Morales, Alastair Moore.
Zuniga, Aidan Smith.
Frasquita, Samantha Hay.
Mercedes, Emma Carrington.
Le Dancaire, Michael Clifton-Thompson.
Remendado, Huw Llywelyn.
Lillas Pastia, Howard Kirk.
Original Directors, Patrice Caurier, Moshe Leiser.
Revival Director, Caroline Chaney.
Set Designer, Christian Fenouillat.
Costume Designer, Agostino Cavalca.
Lighting Designer, Christophe Forey.
Bizet died at the early age of thirty-six, shortly after the premiere of Carmen at the s’ Opera Comique Theatre in Paris where the work was coolly received, the audience finding the story of the eponymous role somewhat immoral. That Puritanism, considering the goings on in Paris society during the recently demised Second Empire, smells of hypocriticism. The Opera Comique presented works with spoken dialogue and it was in this form the opera was premiered. Whilst in recent years many productions, including the present one, have gone back to this original form, the international success and popularity of Carmen dates from its 1875 Vienna production and involves the sung recitatives that the composer’s friend, Ernest Guiraud, added after the Bizet’s untimely death. Welsh National Opera present their Carmen with the spoken dialogue as Bizet envisaged it and as it was performed at the Opera Comique.
I first saw this production in its first year, 1997, and subsequently in the 2010 season at Llandudno. It was the first production I had seen by Patrice Courier and Moshe Leiser. Compared with many other productions I have seen since by the pair which are often garish with excess colour, this is quite the opposite with the only break from the overall drabness being the Act Four costumes and bowls of oranges! The painted school chairs within a shoebox of large drab painted vertical flats in Act One, with no sign of a cigarette factory, give little indication of Spain or Seville. It gets no better as the opera proceeds with Lillas Pastia’s tavern particularly dark. The drama of Act Four was lost in the manner of its presentation, forward of a semi-lowered drop. No drop of blood was sighted after Carmen’s stabbing, perhaps saving on laundry bills; a full house on the first of two consecutive nights deserved better.
In the two previous performances of this production I have seen, at least the singing of the leading principals mitigated my disappointments. In 1997 it was Sarah Fulgoni, whose career I had followed as a student, who carried the day. In 2010 it was Patricia Bardon a well sung and acted Carmen matched by Gwyn Hughes Jones’ virile Don Josè with further vocal pluses to be found with Sarah-Jane Davies’s Micaëlla and David Soar’s stylish Escamilio. We were not in such luck with Alessandra Volpe’s rather sexless Carmen, lacking the necessary sexual vivacity and voluptuousness in her movement and dance. Her singing had plenty of richness of tone, but the registers were not well knit together, her act one solos passing with only polite applause. As her lover, Don José, Peter Wedd’s lyric toned tenor was distinctly strained at times, with his clarity of diction making his poor French enunciation obvious. To compensate, quality of singing, and good acting was evidenced by both Jessica Muirhead as Micaëlla and Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo. Frasquita and Mercédès were well portrayed by Samantha Hay and Emma Carrington whilst there seemed to be more shouting than singing from the smugglers.
In the pit James Southall set a fast pace in the overture and never let the drama drag whilst drawing brisk idiomatic tempi from his orchestra. The chorus were a little undernourished when split into two troops in Act One, but came more into their normal vibrant selves as the act progressed.
I do not know if Scottish Opera have any continuing interest in this production that they once shared, but with Opera North never likely to reprise their roundly condemned, even infamous, production with its Dog Handler Escamillo and yelping Mounties, it is time for WNO to bury this drab production too. Yes, it attracts audiences, but a Company which can also fill Venue Cymru for two rare Rossini operas can do better for one of the top ten in the operatic popularity lexicon.
Robert J Farr.