New Devon Opera’s Country House Carmen

Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of New Devon Opera, Paul Foster (conductor ) The Marquee at Ugbrooke Park, Chudleigh, Devon, 23.7.2011 (BK)

By courtesy of Lord and Lady Clifford of Chudleigh

Carmen – Clare Presland
Don José – Ben Kerslake
Micaela – Emma Morwood
Escamillo – Paul Sheehan
Frasquita – Belinda Evans
Mercedes – Chloé de Backer
Remendado – Robert Amon
Dancaire – Allan Smith
Zuniga – Roderick Hunt
Lillas Pastia – Stephen Grimshaw
A Gypsy and a Guide – Harvey Seale
Lillas Pastia’s wife – Sue Goodman
Manuelita – Lindy Stephens
Alcade (The Mayor) – Stephen Brown
Mayor’s wife – Jane Anderson-Brown
Flamenco  dancer – Karina Gracia
A soldier, Escamillo’s assistant, a smuggler – Stuart Boother
A busker, a drunk, a hanger-on, Alguazil – David Salaman

Chorus of cigarette girls,smugglers, townspeople, soldiers

Conductor – Paul Foster
Director -Martyn Harrison
Choreographer – Daniela Forbes
Production Manager – Graham Wood
Stage Manager – Fran Beaumont
ASMs – Bronnie Bernstein, Ed Richie
Set and Lighting Design – Martyn Harrison
Costumes – Tony Brett (The Costume Store, Essex) and FlameTorbay

Production Picture  © Graham Wood

With the arrival of the new performance marquee at Ugbrooke Park, comparisons between New Devon Opera and Garsington Opera become more difficult than ever to resist. While it is true that NDO brings only a single production to Ugbrooke over one July weekend, as opposed to Garsington’s month long season of four operas, the similarities in atmosphere and in fact in actual performing standards achieved at the two venues seem to become more and more obvious each year.

Some might think it remarkable that comparisons with Garsington can be made at all, especially when we add in the facts that the NDO chorus and comprimario team consist mostly of amateur singers – some of whom do not read music – and that the professional rehearsals have to be completed in ten days after starting from scratch. But that would be to underestimate New Devon Opera and its management team headed up by the determined but totally charming Linda Hughes.

Ever since its beginnings in 2004 when the success of ‘The Magic Flute’ given in the Ugbrooke House courtyard encouraged a group of enthusiasts to dream about a ‘mini – Glyndebourne’ in the Devon countryside, systematic progress and innovation have been the company’s watchwords.

While a ‘mini Garsington’ may well prove more achievable than a ‘Glyndebourne’ because of NDO’s steadfastly non-subsidised status – and its substantial annual donations to the deaf-blind charity Sense – remarkable opera is already happening at Ugbrooke and continues to develop there. ‘Wer weiss was ich tu? – Who knows what I’ll do? ‘ the trickster god Loge asks at the end of Wagner’s Ring and it would be a very talented prophet indeed who could say with any certainty what New Devon Opera might achieve in the future. It’s sure to be interesting however, even if repertoire choices continue to be dictated by the need to fill seats.

Carmen (Clare Presland ) and Don Jose (Ben Kerslake)

Expertly directed by Martyn Harrison, this Carmen is New Devon Opera’s most ambitious project yet simply because of the number of people involved in it. The setting is deliberately traditional with neither fancy emphases on sub-texts or artificial shifts of location or period to distract from the drama. This is 19th century Spain near Seville where the women wear flouncy ruffled skirts, the soldiers are in uniform and the bullfighters really do wear ‘suits of lights. ‘ There’s even a horse to bring Escamillo on in Act II. (He’s a pony pulling a trap in fact, but he’s a fine handsome fellow that’s for sure – name of Hector I gather, with a highly developed taste for peppermints.)

Martyn Harrison’s gift for crowd management is nothing short of an art-form in itself because even with the increased stage space available within the new marquee, enormous discipline is needed to ensure that the 25 member chorus and all of the principals work smoothly together. In the confined space they need to be not merely a team but become more like components in an intricate and precisely made machine that is working very hard indeed: the chorus in this opera appears in seventeen of the twenty three scenes. Sets are necessarily minimalistic, little more than some pieces of furniture, wall hangings and lighting changes but here again, expert stage management uses the resources to the greatest possible dramatic effects. It’s almost worth seeing the production simply to admire the stage work.

But this is highly melodic opera which needs excellent musicians and here again the chorus scores full marks to become the star of the show as Martyn Harrison puts it. The singing is powerful, tuneful and yet refined. The marquee is a very revealing acoustic environment in which it is very easy to hear individual voices among the crowd and it was a genuine pleasure to find the chorus essentially note perfect at almost every turn. This is not easy music either but at no point did audience attention flag so far as I could tell. Similarly, the orchestra played with fine commitment under Paul Foster’s spirited direction among which Michelle Farley’s percussion playing undoubtedly added something of a special sparkle to Bizet’s take on Spanish rhythms.

Competition for the principal roles is always high in New Devon Opera productions and this time a generally highly creditable and committed team – chosen from a large number of applicants from both the UK and overseas – gave of their collective best. I did find myself wondering occasionally if the marquee environment was causing some of them particular vocal difficulties and in fact the same thought occurred about the English translation of the libretto, sections of which sounded decidedly awkward in relation to the musical underlay.

Carmen is of course one of those operas – at least to my mind – which is much more difficult than it might often sound to the general public simply because its almost limitless stream of melody disguises the opera’s strenuous demands on the singers’ abilities as actors. That’s especially true of the mezzo playing Carmen herself and of her doomed lover Don José too. Mind you, how any self-respecting tenor can bring himself to play such a spineless wimp has always been something of  a mystery to me: a grown man whingeing endlessly that a girl should ‘love’ him out pity isn’t exactly Rambo after all.

The production runs on 26th and 27th July in Dartmouth and on the 30th in Budleigh Salterton. People lucky enough to live in South Devon are urged to see it if they possible can – although sadly without Hector in all probability.

Bill Kenny


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