Carmen on Grand Scale with Intense Finale

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bizet, Carmen: Soloists and Chorus, Capital Arts Children’s Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Gareth Hancock (conductor), David Freeman (director), Royal Albert Hall, London, 21.2.2013 (JPr)


Carmen – Rachel Lloyd
Don José – Noah Stewart
Micaëla – Elizabeth Atherton
Escamillo – Kevin Greenlaw

Rachael Lloyd Carmen and Noah Stewart Don Jose in Carman: Credit Tristam Kenton
Rachael Lloyd Carmen and Noah Stewart Don Jose in Carmen: Credit Tristam Kenton

David Freeman’s 2005 Carmen returned to Raymond Gubbay’s annual Royal Albert Hall opera ‘in-the-round’ season for the first time since its 2009 revival. I have attended Raymond Gubbay events of all sorts since his early days of presenting Willi Boskovsky, Victor Borge and Opera Gala Nights with Alberto Remedios. (Look the names up if you are too young!) Carmen is another good evening of music for the masses, but it is still not that cheap. However, anything is ‘cheap’ when compared to the Royal Opera and a Premier League football match. The stalls seats at £65 are also comparable to West End musicals and you have a mostly great view, but it really cannot have the same impact higher up in a distant circle seat at £39.

The action is updated to the 1920’s, it is all very colourful and – to a certain degree – as spectacular as it aims to be with its cast of ‘over 100 soloists, chorus and actors’. Freeman and his designer David Roger gives us a curved platform that meanders across the arena floor and how they use it works wonderfully at times and occasionally less well. It begins with soldiers marching silently on, and during the overture the stage begins to fill: boys play at bull-fighting, gypsy girls practice a flamenco routine, the hoi polloi wander in some selling something or picking pockets, with others just promenading around in their Sunday best. I also admired how Andrew Bridge’s subtle lighting and a number of large trees brings us the mountain pass for Act III. I still marvel how smoothly and effortlessly they rise high into the roof of the Royal Albert Hall before Act IV to allows us the allusion to a feria ‘celebrating’ the Day of the Dead outside the bullring. Here are shown the eye-catching antics of fire jugglers, acrobats and stilt-walkers entertaining everyone before the entrance the bullfighters, which tends to gets a bit lost in the throng.

Unfortunately for a full in-the-round experience Carmen is rather dependent on a number of Don José’s one-on-one confrontations, particularly with Micaëla, Carmen and Escamillo. For some reason a lot of these are staged rather conventionally near the very obvious conductor and orchestra at what is the far end of the hall away from most of those watching. Also Escamillo doesn’t fare very well himself; after wandering on he arrives at Lillias Pastia’s tavern, is made to sit down and virtually disappears into the crowd until rather too late when he stands on a table for the end of his Toreador’s Song. Also in Act IV as he pledges his love for Carmen it was very difficult to find where they were with everyone else standing around. While I am moaning, worse still was the bulls’ heads on poles that are brought on at the end and are used to draw our attention to the bullfight. These mostly blocked my view of Carmen’s tragic denouement. Also, although it was sung in English, words come and go in such a vast space and some surtitles would be useful. Was singing Aida in the original language last year and having the translation on TV screens considered not to have been successful? No one really wants an imitation of Manuel’s Spanish accent from the classic TV comedy Fawlty Towers but there is such a wide range of accents to be heard in the spoken dialogue to make this another rather unnecessary distraction.

I do not want to seem too negative because when it had ended I certainly realised how much I had enjoyed it all. These are however genuine concerns that were there in 2009 (and presumably in 2005) that I suspect others, as well as me, would have raised and would stop anyone new to opera from fully enjoying their first-time.

For me, there was a very low-key opening to the opera and it was only after the arrival of Carmen resulting in Don José’s almost instant infatuation that things took off. However, I was impressed with the commitment and energy from the youngest child to more senior members of the chorus, or actors and specialty performers right from the start. There are a number of casts but the opening night saw Noah Stewart’s Don José paired with Rachel Lloyd’s Carmen, Elizabeth Atherton returned as Micaëla and Kevin Greenlaw was Escamillo. The smaller roles have the same singers for all the performances and while no one disappoints, no one particularly stands out much either.

Rachel Lloyd seems to have been promoted from third Carmen to replace the previously announced Cristina Nassif on opening night. In 2009 Ms Nassif was a suitably feral gypsy and in contrast Ms Lloyd gave Carmen a lissom, potent – if more understated (perhaps rather British) sexiness and she totally won me over, although her evident near-contralto voice doesn’t quite yet have the freedom at the top a Carmen needs. This is just a ‘yet’ as I think Rachel Lloyd is a singer to look out for in the future, if she gets the opportunities I think she deserves.

I only knew of Noah Stewart from the all the hype surrounding the release of his very successful debut album from Decca. I was surprised to read that this is the Harlem-born singer’s fifth Carmen production, though his first in English. I was not left entirely convinced at the scale of his tenor voice – though an unamplified entry through the audience at the start of Act II suggests it might be big enough – but was pleasantly surprised by his innate lyricism and burnished tones. However, the wonderfully ringing high B-flat at the end of the ‘Flower Song’ might be as far as it goes at the moment. I believed more in his despair and jealous rage over Carmen’s antics than in any actual passion for her. This hints at Prosper Mérimée’s original novella that tells us she is not the first person he kills … or second, because in Act II he appears to despatch his superior officer, Zuniga (Benjamin Cahn), as well. With an eye to the future, I could imagine Noah Stewart in years to come being a fine Parsifal – having a black singer in that role really would be something different. (Going from Don José to Wagner happens quite often, it did to the aforementioned Alberto Remedios, as well as, Jonas Kaufmann, and John Daszak who I saw last time in this production now sings Siegfried!)

Micaëla was rather insipid and no real match for Carmen though this was not Elizabeth Atherton’s fault and she does all she can with this rather underdeveloped role. She portrayed very well a little girl lost in an evil world and sang with a bittersweet tenderness, although her diction might have been better – or that could have been the fault of the amplification. Kevin Greenlaw had most of the qualities Escamillo needs including bravado, bluster and a certain charisma, his high baritone making the best of his song that still has ‘Toreador, be ready’ instead of the ‘Toreador, on guard’ – which is more sensible because it is what everyone expects and matches the music better.

Gareth Hancock is listed in the programme as ‘music director’ rather than ‘conductor’ and as such accompanied the singers well and held everything together. The sound from the reliable Royal Philharmonic Orchestra lacked a little real Andalusian heat but was perfectly fine and with that final confrontation between Don José and Carmen the emotional temperature was raised so much that the ending was as dramatically intense as I could hope for – at least from what I could see through those bulls heads!

We all like a good Carmen ; it is often one of everyone’s first operas – as it was for me in the 1970s. It is difficult to pull off because of its large-scale crowd scenes and many more intimate moments – so it will always be a tricky balancing act . Despite some reservations this is almost as good as it can get for those new to opera who come to the Royal Albert Hall.

Jim Pritchard

For more information about Carmen and any future Raymond Gubbay presentations visit