United Kingdom Bizet, Carmen (revival): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Erik Nielsen, conductor, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 19.09.2014 (GPu)
Carmen: Alessandra Wolpe
Don José: Peter Wedd
Micaëla: Jessica Muirhead
Escamillo: Kostas Smoriginas
Zuniga: Aidan Smith
Frasquita: Amy Freston
Mercédès: Emma Carrington
Moralès: Alastair Moore
Lillas Pastia / Guide: Howard Kirk
Le Dancaïre: Julian Boyce
Remendado: Cárthaigh Quill
Original Directors: Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser
Revival Director: Caroline Chaney
Set Designer: Christian Fenouillat
Costume Designer: Agostino Cavalca
Lighting Designer: Christophe Forey
Chorus Master: Alexander Martin
This production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser – originally a co-production with Scottish Opera – had its Welsh premiere in February 1997. I have to say that having seen it several times, it is not a production that has ever made a very favourable impact on me, or of which I have ever been very fond. It is almost unrelentingly gloomy – the (perfectly proper) darkness of Acts II and III seems to have been allowed to permeate Acts I and IV too, so that a crucial contrast is lost. Too many scenes are static. There is not much here of the light and vitality of southern Spain.
Unless my memory deceives me, in directing this revival Caroline Cheney has risked raising WNO’s electricity bill a little. In the opening and closing acts there is a little more sense (compared to previous versions of the production) of a hot southern sun, a little more play of light and shade – though still not enough.
In some respects, too, this time around the cast was stronger than in most of the previous incarnations of the production that I have seen. I found Alessandra Wolpe’s Carmen quite compelling. She looked the part, with her dark hair and colouring and a general litheness of body, and her voice had a fullness and an occasional roughness of timbre that functioned as part of a coherent characterisation, her Carmen having both aspirations to a personal liberty which also had social and political overtones, and a solid grounding in her own physicality and its possibilities. Peter Wedd was a somewhat less compelling presence and voice as Don José. The role, it seems to me, is an extraordinarily difficult one to bring off successfully. Don José is essentially a timidly decent, ‘proper’ young man – and archetypally indecisive. The woman with the greatest and most enduring power over him, is neither Carmen nor Micaela, but the mother we never see. To convey all that, while also convincing us in his passionate outbursts to and with Carmen, is a tall order and Peter Wedd wasn’t, on this occasion, able to do so persuasively. His sense of ‘honour’, his ties to his mother and his lack of real resolution were generally more believable than his passion. The Escamillo of Kostas Smoriginas had swagger and self-confidence (as the role demands), both physically and vocally, but didn’t offer a great deal in the way of vocal subtlety.
Too often the role of Micaela is made to seem like little more than a necessary function of plot and moral theme. But as performed by Jessica Muirhead, Micaela took on a more individualised vitality and the figure’s importance to the musical and dramatic wholeness of Carmen was made unmistakeable. This was the most emotionally affecting and most beautifully suing interpretation of the role that I have encountered in the theatre. In giving Micaela such implied depth and dignity and, of course, in singing her words so gloriously (especially in a memorable interpretation of “Je dis que rien m’épouvante”) she restored a balance to the opera which is often lost or forgotten.
The minor roles were generally well sung. As Frasquita and Mercédès, Amy Freston and Emma Carrington complemented Wolpe’s Carmen very well, while the Remndado of Cárthaigh Quill and Julian Boyce’s Le Dancaire made an engaging pair of bandits. Aidan Smith was a convincing Zuniga, whom one cared about more than is usual.
One unsettling dimension of this first night performance seemed to derive from the conducting of Erik Nielsen. Some of his choices of tempo were inappropriately fast and in a couple of ensembles he seemed at odds with more than one of the singers. Friends who saw later performances (including one who had also seen this first night) have told me that such problems were limited to this first night.
If (though surely it will be a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’) WNO return to Carmen, I hope they will be able to do so in a new production. This present production has surely reached the end of its useful life. Bookended by outstanding productions of William Tell and Moses in Egypt in the current season this production of Carmen showed most of its nearly thirty years in its underlying lack of vitality.