‘Comrades in adversity’ pull together for a Longborough Carmen with a difference

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Longborough Festival Opera 2022 [3] – Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Longborough Youth Chorus, Longborough Festival Chorus and Orchestra / Jeremy Silver (conductor).  Longborough, Gloucestershire, 9.7.2022. (CP)

Longborough Festival Opera’s Carmen (c) Matthew Williams-Ellis

Director – Mathilde López
Designer – Constance Canavarro
Lighting designer – Simon Spencer
Movement director – Carmine De Amicis
Chorus master – Karin Hendrickson
Youth Chorus Team – Nicola Rose, Maria Jagusz, Jessica May

Carmen – Bernadette Johns
Don José – Peter Gijsbertsen
Escamillo – Matthew Siveter
Micaëla – Linda Richardson
Zuniga – Szymon Chojnacki
Mercédès – Idunnu Münch
Moralès/Lillas Pastia – James Gribble
Frasquita – Angharad Watkeys
Le Dancaïre – Keiran Rayner
Le Remendado – Lars Fischer
Don José’s Mother/Old Lady – Maria Jagusz

‘Comrades in adversity’ is the coming together to solve problems and support one another – the joy of peer-learning. Opportunities to promote peer-learning will have been uppermost in the mind of director Mathilde López as the morning of opening night of this Longborough Festival Opera production of Carmen dawned. Six principals out, suffering from the irritating extension of the Covid infection. How would four covers and two guests cope? This is what covers are for, isn’t it? Would the show go ahead? Working together as equals would be the order of the day. Fortunately, the remaining comrades including the four covers and the two very capable guests, who both happened to be available at very short notice, performed very credibly, with everyone enjoying the warmth of the applause at the closing curtain. Extra curtain calls were needed.

Thanks to conductor Jeremy Silver adopting a very relaxed approach to tempo to assist the newcomers, and with those in the pit paying even greater attention to both their conductor and to strings leader Katharine Gittings, the performance was musically strong. Thursday’s full dress rehearsal had been successfully negotiated with the previously announced cast; the performances from Tuesday 12 July onwards could welcome the published cast back in full. Thank heavens for ‘comrades’ and learning from each other.

The result was basically a semi-staged performance which at least ensured – as they tend to – a more auditory performance, with the obvious limitation of fewer props and the absence of scene changes. With a backdrop of a vast screen shot advertising Andalucía, many Spanish hams hanging from the rafters in the meatpacking plant, a very large green rubbish bin overflowing with what could be believed to be the sad remains from a bull fight, the mask-wearing actors appeared on stage to take their places as part of the backdrop. Singing in English with English surtitles, set in modern dress, the performance gave covers the chance to shine.

Bernadette Johns grabbed the opportunity to use her seductive mezzo-soprano voice in securing the attention of a somewhat reluctant Don José (Peter Gijsbertsen) whose behaviour is dictated by the very strong feelings he holds for his mother. Gijsbertsen leads on most things in this opéra-comique and commands affairs, when, and if, his sense of duty demands it. He feels the mental anguish of the mother-son relationship; his fine tenor voice is comfortably expanded into a baritone register when needed. He is articulate and sophisticated, enjoying the colour, melody and brilliant aptness of the orchestration. Carmen is essentially full of local Spanish colour however, much of the music is Bizet’s own imagined invention, he refused the opportunity for a study tour of the country, claiming ‘it would confuse him!’

As part of a committed chorus, the Loughborough Youth Chorus sang very enthusiastically but will have been disappointed at the movement limitations imposed on them by the restrictions; the young singers will enjoy greater freedom in post-illness future performances.

Linda Richardson (Micaëla) helped rescue the performance within hours of opening night and is fondly remembered for her 2019 performances as Anna Bolena at Longborough. Matthew Siveter (Escamillo) was guest number two, asked to perform the bullfighter role. Having considerable experience as a pantomime dame may not have been the most helpful recent stage experience. Baritone James Gribble (Moralès), tenor Lars Fischer (Le Remendado) and soprano Angharad Watkeys (Frasquita) all stepped up from chorus and impressed with their grips on their parts – each recognising the importance of the bigger team ethic and so probably guaranteed their future involvement in the company should the lingering pandemic continue to impact this production.

Director Mathilde López’s nightmare was not made any less challenging with the loss of her original lighting designer. Simon Spencer, known locally for his acclaimed work for the Royal Shakespeare Company, stepped into the position. It is hard to appreciate how difficult the Saturday morning decision-taking meeting must have been. That positive audience reaction and extra curtain call will have been most welcome.

Clive Peacock

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