WNO’s Fading Carmen Needs to be Dusted Down

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bizet Carmen: Soloists, Welsh National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Erik Nielsen (conductor), Swansea Grand Theatre, 11/10/14 (LJ).

Morales: Alastair Moore
Micaela: Jessica Muirhead
Carmen: Alessandra Volpe
Don Jose: Peter Wedd
Zuniga: Aidan Smith
Frasquita: Amy Freston
Mercedes: Emma Carrington
Escamillo: Kostas Smoriginas
Le Dancaire: Julian Boyce
Remendado: Carthaigh Quill
Lillas Pastia/Guide: Howard Kirk

Conductor: Erik Nielsen
Directors: Patrice Caurier, Moshe Leiser, Caroline Chaney
Set Designer: Christian Fenouillat
Costume Designer: Agostino Cavalca
Lighting Designer: Christophe Forey
Stage Manager: Suzie Erith
Production Manager: Sarah Koch

To quote George Bizet ,Carmen is an opera about “a rebellious bird that nobody can tame” and as such ‘love’ (metaphor for the aforementioned rebellious bird), is such an elusive character that “it’s all in vain to call it if it chooses to refuse”. A plot of possessive passion set in motion by Don Jose’s desire and propelled by his growing jealousy (after a grandiloquent bullfighter averts Carmen’s gaze) can only be resolved in death. Such tragedy along with powerful music of extreme tension and lyricism, performed very well by the consistently good WNO Orchestra, requires professionalism and daring artistic direction. Saturday night’s performance of Georges Bizet’s Carmen (which was first performed in the Theatre National de l’Opera-Compique, Paris on March 3rd 1875) was an admixture of strengths and weaknesses.

Having been staged over 500 times in Covent Garden alone, Bizet’s Carmen is a spectacularly popular opera amongst audiences worldwide. Containing the much loved numbers such as Carmen’s alluring Habanera and Escamillo’s Toreador’s Song celebrating the thrill of the bullfight, this opera is perfumed with exoticism and stuffed with pomposity. Stemming from a novella of the same name, it is a passionate story of desire, jealousy and deception. Prosper Mérimée’s tale allured French readers with Spanish eroticism and sensuality, which was successfully captured and reimagined by Bizet’s librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy. Unfortunately, at only 37, Bizet died before he had the chance to see his opera become irrepressibly popular. On the day of his death, June 3rd 1875, Celestine Galli-Marie was singing Carmen at the Opera-Comique. During the scene in Act Three when she foretells her own death in the cards (‘La mort! J’ai bien lu’ / ‘Death! I read it correctly’), Galli-Marie was so overcome with sorrow that she fainted at the end of the performance and burst into tears. However, the initial rebuttal of Bizet’s Carmen was short-lived and it now sits comfortably alongside Toscas, Turandots and Traviatas.

In his note attached to the 1847 edition of Carmen, Prosper Mérimée described Spanish gypsies as having an expression that “can best be compared to that of a wild beast”. In depicting the characters thus, costume designer Agostino Cavalca must be commended. Portraying Carmen as the wily, roguish and luxuriant gypsy she is, Alessandra Volpe looked and acted the part with daringness and vivacity. Accordingly Volpe’s voice bespoke of a coarse texture, avoiding rounded sonority for a voice that was scuffed on the edges. Though this was an effective element of the characterisation of Carmen, it was perhaps a little overused as Volpe sometimes sounded ever so slightly flat. It must be noted that Volpe’s performance of La Taverna de Lillas Pasia in Act Two was excellent; it left much of the audience wanting to tag along; dance the Seguedilla, and drink Manzanilla. However, such a scene of ribaldry emphasises the main drawback of this performance. In comparison to The Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 staging of this scene with the considerably less husky Elina Garanca as Carmen, directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser (along with revival director Caroline Chaney) seem to have left out much of the theatricality of this opera. Furthermore, it was a disappointment that when the curtains reopened after the interval for Act Three that there was no change of set design. In fact it was only an abundance of oranges that appeared in Act Four that suggested Spain throughout the whole production. For three-quarters of the play the cast and audience were supressed by the doom and gloom of the tobacco factory, even Lillas Pastia’s looked less than inviting.

Despite an uninspiring stage, in their chorus the WNO never disappoint and Saturday’s performance was no exception. As the curtains opened, a scene not too dissimilar from a Welsh male-voice choir of a mining town settled the audiences in their seats. Shortly followed by the women of the chorus singing of ‘La fumée qui monte en tournant vers les cieux’ (‘Smoke which mounts and turns towards the sky’), it was clear that by the end of the first scene the choir of the WNO had already asserted themselves as being of considerable merit. Likewise, Jessica Muirhead’s performance of Michaela’s aria in Act Three where she begs Don Jose to go with her to see his dying mother was stunning.

As Carmen unfolds, lust and tragedy conspire to undo a formidable woman and her helpless admirer (Don Jose). Dripping with Spanish flare and gypsy-like defiance, as Carmen says: ‘L’amour est enfant de Bohême, / Il n’a jamais, jamais connu de loi’ (‘Love is the child of the Bohemian, / It has never, never known any law’). Falling deeper and deeper into the depths of insatiable passion and infidelity though never completely straying from frivolousness and chivalry (at least in Carmen’s persistent flirtatiousness and Escamillo’s inescapable gallantry), the opera is best described by the conductor Georg Solti: ‘Carmen is a fusion of comedy and tragedy. As the tragedy deepens, the music takes over because the emotions are too strong to be carried by dialogue.’ For Peter Wedd, who did not possess a very fine or even remotely convincing French accent, this was just as well. Not redeemed by acting abilities either Wedd was a lukewarm Don Jose. Most unfortunately, Wedd lacked the considerable subtlety needed in the Flower Song where though withered and dry, the flower (a loose metaphor for Carmen) retained its sweet fragrance. For what Wedd lacked, Kostas Smoriginas (Escamillo) made up for in abundance. Overflowing with toreador spirit, Smoriginas was both vocally and physically impressive.

In short, this was a production in need of dusting down and reassembling (it was first brought to light in 1997, surely it must be agreed that by now any brilliance is waning). There were elements which charmed the audience (such as the children’s tom-foolery in Act One and the comic fortune-telling duet between Frasquita and Mercedes in Act Three), but there were also some bemusing bull-like tendencies from Volpe who seemed to interpret Carmen as a Kafka inspired character metamorphosing into a bull (her ramming head and leg stroking detracted from the serious tragedy of her character). Quite literally, the WNO needs to shed a little more light on the scene.

Lucy Jeffery





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