Via Ukraine, Ellen Kent presents a musically satisfying Carmen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bizet, CarmenSoloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kyiv / Vasyl Vasylenko (conductor). Cliffs Pavilion, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, 27.3.2024. (JPr)

Director – Ellen Kent
Company manager and Stage director – Victor Donos
Lighting designer/Operator – Valeriu Cucarschi
Chorus mistress – Kateryna Kondratenko-Savienkova

Carmen – Irina Sproglis
Don José – Davit Sumbadze
Escamillo – Iurie Gisca
Micaëla – Alyona Kistenyova
Zuniga – Valeriu Cojocaru
Moralès / Le Dancaïre – Vitalii Cebotari
Frasquita – Anastasiia Blokha
Mercédès – Marharyta Bohachova
Le Remendado – Nicolae Cebanu

The origins of Carmen – apparently the most popular opera ever written – go back to Andalusia in 1830 when the French author Prosper Mérimée heard an anecdote about a gypsy girl killed by a jealous lover. Following another fifteen years of travelling in Spain, as well as encountering and reading about gypsies, Mérimée published his novella Carmen in 1845. In it a Spanish soldier Don José Navarro, who is passionately in love with the gypsy Carmen; deserts his regiment to follow a life of crime and murder for her. Because Carmen seems incapable of staying faithful to him, Navarro kills her and while awaiting his execution for his crime recounts his story to the novel’s narrator. In Carmen, Mérimée created one of the greatest femme fatales in all literature; a woman exploiting her sexuality and mystique to further her own ends. Mérimée’s Carmen is ‘prettier than any gypsy’ with eyes that are both sensual and savage, who because she cannot afford perfume wears heavily scented flowers. She is faithful to her own people and cannot tolerate José’s possessive love for her. Carmen loves her freedom more than anything else and faces death boldly, totally resigned to her fate, bringing her story to a tragic end.

It is not clear why Bizet chose Carmen, described as ‘a sober laconic low life story only slightly relieved by the exotic setting of Spain’, as the subject for an opera: he had never been to Spain and knew little its music. The management of the Opéra-Comique in Paris (where it was to be put on) objected to its assorted gypsies, prostitutes, thieves and cut-throats. Even Bizet’s librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy did not particularly care for the project, revising the story much to the composer’s displeasure to make it work better as an opera and be more acceptable to the mores of the day. To support Mérimée’s two central characters, they added Micaëla to symbolise the innocence of José’s village and also included Escamillo to embody the type of man Carmen cannot resist.

The 1875 premiere was not a success and the press were hostile. Bizet pronounced it ‘a definite and hopeless flop’; it made him ill and probably contributed to his early death. For others such as his fellow composer Massenet, it had been ‘A great success’ and Tchaikovsky later called it ‘A masterpiece’. There had been many mishaps on the first night: the tenor Paul Lhérie had vocal problems; the cigarette girls, who were not used to smoking, choked in Act I (there is no smoking at the Cliffs Pavilion!); as Carmen, Celestine Galli-Marié lost her castanets and had to break a plate onstage and use that; also the timpanist misread his score and intruded loudly during the duet between Don José and Carmen. From this poor start, Bizet’s Carmen has gained its enormous popularity over the years.

Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kyiv’s Carmen

Ellen Kent’s Carmen staging provides a thoroughly enjoyable night at the opera for audiences as it continues its UK tour and the tickets prices are also very reasonable.  It is a good, honest, entertaining attempt at doing all it needs to do – tell the story clearly, allow the singers to do their best and make good use of the space available. There is a single set – the inside of a Roman Temple? – with columns and bulls’ heads in the alcoves for all the scenes of the opera with just a few changes in stage furniture; whether Seville’s town square, an inn, or a mountain pass. Also, through the large doors at the rear of the stage there will be a hint of some mountains for Act III and a bullring for the final act. The costumes are appropriately colourful and take us back to the early-eighteenth century of the original story.

There have been so many wonderful achievements for Ellen Kent since she started producing theatre, ballet and opera in the 1980s but one of the most significant ones (for her and her Senbla partners) – because of the recent difficult times for the people of Ukraine – is her promotion since 2002 of Ukrainian Opera companies. She is quoted in the very informative souvenir brochure as saying how they have been given ‘the highest profile throughout the UK. We have taken the Ukrainian National Operas of Odessa and Kharkiv many times to the Royal Albert Hall and to many important venues in the UK such as the Manchester Opera House. Most recently, we toured the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre Kyiv in the UK and Ireland in Spring 2023 which was a huge success, and the Ukrainian National Anthem was proudly played after every performance.’

It was poignant to see everyone stand for the Ukrainian National Anthem being sung at the end of Carmen at the Cliffs Pavilion, a moment of collective support for that country’s ongoing struggles. Under the banner again of the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre Kyiv, a polyglot cast of principals, a valiant modest-sized chorus and orchestra – all more than adequate to their task – did Carmen proud. From the very first notes of the opera’s prelude Vasyl Vasylenko (artistic director of the Opera and Ballet Theatre Kyiv) whipped his musicians through the score with as much Andalusian heat as they could muster for the riveting drama. (Recalling the timpanist intruding loudly at the 1875 premiere, the drums were beaten over-enthusiastically during the prelude at the Cliffs Pavilion almost as if it was a timpani solo!)

Robust Georgian tenor Davit Sumbadze was a stolid Don José to begin with and it is not entirely clear why Carmen sets her sights on him initially, but Sumbadze came into his own when releasing all his character’s pent-up anger in Act IV and despatching Carmen. So never in doubt was how Sumbadze’s performance grew in vocal stature as Don José disintegrated through jealously. Ukrainian Irina Sproglis was an outstanding, world-class Carmen, brash, sultry and manipulative when toying with José’s affection; the passion of her duets with José rang true and her chocolatey, vibrant mezzo-soprano voice impressed me.

Iurie Gisca – looking uncannily like the late movie star Charles Bronson – brought swaggering machismo to Escamillo and had all the vocal power and projection to pin the audience’s ears back for a rabble-rousing toreador’s song ‘Votre toast’, though I don’t think his French was the best we heard. Alyona Kistenyova’s Micaëla was rather a ‘shrinking violet’ and no match for Carmen though she sang with some delicate silvery tones but with a noticeable vibrato.  Valeriu Cojocaru did an amusing drunk act as José’s lieutenant, Zuniga, while Anastasiia Blokha (Frasquita) and Marharyta Bohachova (Mercédès) caught the eye and ear during the Act II Smugglers’ Quintet and reading the cards in Act III. The small chorus did wonders filling in as townsfolk, soldiers, flamenco dancers, battling cigarette factory girls, Escamillo’s supporters, gypsies and more, singing throughout with full-throated enthusiasm.

Whether you are new to Carmen or, like me, have seen it many times you will find the performance very musically satisfying, as those in a very well-filled Cliffs Pavilion clearly did.

Jim Pritchard

For more about Ellen Kent’s Carmen, La traviata and Madama Butterfly on tour click here.

1 thought on “Via Ukraine, Ellen Kent presents a musically satisfying <i>Carmen</i>”

  1. I saw them tonight at Bexhill in Madama Butterfly, absolutely amazing.

    S&H replies: Madama Butterfly will be reviewed at Cliffs Pavilion in May.


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