Heritage Opera Creates an Intimate Carmen With an Irish Flavour

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bizet’s Carmen: comic opera in four acts sung in English with accompaniment by piano and string quartet. Heritage Opera, Haigh Hall, Wigan, Lancashire: 21.10.2011 (MC)


Musical Director: Chris Gill
Director: Sarah Helsby Hughes
Stage Manager: Clive Leighton


Carmen – Serenna Wagner (soprano)
Don José – Nicholas Sales (tenor)
Micaëla – Lorna James (soprano)
Escamillo – Mark Saberton (baritone)
Frasquita – Paloma Bruce (soprano)
Mercedes – Wendy Sharrock (mezzo-soprano)
Dancairo – Thomas Eaglen (baritone)
Remendado – Darren Clarke (tenor)
Morales – Matthew Palmer (baritone)
Sarah Helsby Hughes (soprano)
Heather Lupton (mezzo-soprano)
Richard James Belshaw (tenor)

The Heritage Opera Ensemble:

Paul Greenhalgh (piano)
Frances Tabone (violin)
Shahla Armitage (violin)
Kay Thomas (viola)
Hilary Brice (cello)



Heritage Opera Performance of Carmen: Photo Courtesy of Heritage Opera


After staging the world première of Jonathon Dove’s new chamber opera MansfieldPark, Heritage Opera have reverted back to more familiar repertoire for their autumn tour with Bizet’s ultra popular opera Carmen. Premièred at the Opéra-Comique, Paris in 1875 it is difficult to believe today that the overt sensuality of the plot and characterisation shocked the early Carmen audiences who were clearly unaccustomed to realism in their operas. Designated as a comic opera Carmen’s lascivious scenario and tragic ending seemed incongruous with the genre. Set in the searing heat of Seville, Spain during the mid-nineteenth century this tale of love and passion, jealousy and betrayal, and violence resulting in murder all transferred splendidly to what was a chilly and blustery opening night at Haigh Hall, Wigan.

As Carmen, Serenna Wagner was mightily impressive portraying the wild and fiery, man-eating gypsy temptress from the cigarette factory. Although usually a smoky-toned mezzo-soprano role soprano Wagner confidently surmounted the challenges of this demanding part. Flirting with José, describing the fickle nature of her affection, the Habanera from act I was sung so alluringly by Wagner; sweet-toned and sparkling yet consistently subtle. In Act III when Carmen’s cards predict a disastrous future I was stuck by her impressive performance giving a chilling exclamation “There is no doubt, it’s death.”It was delightful watching the soprano develop the character of the free-spirited and sultry siren with compelling acting and singing.

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G.Bizet, Carmen,
C.Abbado, / LSO
P.Domingo, I.Cotrubas, S.Milnes et al.

In the role of Don José the deserting soldier who dotes on his mother, Nicholas Sales put his heart and soul into the part to appealing effect. One felt for the pitiful corporal who allowed Carmen to mock his affection for her only to discard him for Escamillo. Bright, characterful and vibrant Sales was certainly up to the considerable demands of the role, above all when declaring his passion for Carmen in the Flower Song duet from Act II. The final action was breathtaking when the desperate José at his wit’s end and delirious with emotion stabbed Carmen.

With a character directly opposite to that of Carmen, Lorna James played Micaëla the straight-laced, rather sorry and uninteresting village maid with assurance. In the future I look forward to what James can do with a more dramatic role. In the Act I aria when Micaëla brings a letter to José from his mother, suggesting they should be married, the soprano displayed her pure and firm voice revealing a marvellous diction.

Baritone Mark Saberton is a great favourite with Heritage Opera audiences and with his considerable stage presence his Escamillo certainly didn’t disappoint. Formidably cast as the flamboyant and celebrated Toreador, probably the bullfighting equivalent of a modern day galáctico at Real Madrid football club, Saberton owned the stage.
A highlight of the evening was Escamillo’s Act II aria, the famous Toreador Song, so confidently sung by the baritone depicting a red-blooded, heroic and swaggering Escamillo.

Not only was the singing impressive throughout but the acting from the cast who clearly love their work was persuasive right down to the finest detail. For this production the director chose to give the gypsies Irish accents. What may have seemed strange at first was actually a clever move especially as the production is sung in English. Remembering that Carmen is a comic opera some of the English translations were memorably witty such as the innkeeper barking to his customers who want to stay on drinking “The law has been breathing down my neck recently” and “Don’t you have any homes to go to?” Also amusing was Carmen mocking José saying that she wanted his “Sainted mother to cut his apron strings.”

I loved the adaptability of Heritage Opera skillfully managing the restrictive stage space at their disposal on the evening. Who can forget the gypsy dance scene and Don José and Escamillo’s excellent knife fight? Real credit is due to the production team; the period costumes and rather minimal stage design served to create an intimate setting. In recent years I have been used to hearing Heritage Opera using piano or piano duet accompaniment only. For this production under the baton of music director Chris Gill the addition of a string quartet to Paul Greenhalgh’s excellent piano proved a successful move providing additional colour and interest. Entertaining audiences is Heritage Opera’s objective and with Carmen they delivered in spades.

Michael Cookson