tue 23/07/2024

Carmen, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Carmen, Welsh National Opera

Carmen, Welsh National Opera

Bizet's crowd-pleasing masterpiece sadly creaks in this lazy, by-the-numbers revival

The Sevillians, waiting for the procession that never comesPhoto: Jeni Clegg

Popularity is all very well, but it can be a poisoned chalice. Braving the umpteenth revival of Carmen at WNO (original directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, revival director Caroline Chaney), I began to experience that sense of weariness that sometimes afflicts the dutiful end of the repertoire: Bizet’s masterpiece along with the relentless Butterflies and Toscas, the Figaros and Barbers.

That feeling that the work and its myriad devotees will somehow get us through in the absence of anything resembling artistic necessity. And indeed Friday’s audience played its part, clapping at every possible and a few impossible moments, appreciating everything, noticing nothing. I thought of Schnabel; they even clap when it’s good.

Good this mostly wasn’t. Let’s start with conductor Erik Nielsen. He set off at a clip and a half, and generally maintained it, often in defiance of the singers’ needs or (more to the point) awareness. Ensemble was often shaky and now and then atrocious. Orchestral balance took its chance, though these players are so good that the music usually came through anyway. And what music it is! Bizet’s death aged 37 soon after the premiere of this marvellous work must count as the biggest single tragedy for opera, greater even than Mozart’s early death or Shostakovich’s retreat after Lady Macbeth. Carmen usually deserves better of its interpreters; but it also usually survives them.

Here it survives some questionable casting. Alessandra Volpe (pictured right with Peter Wedd) has the looks and vocal type of a good Carmen, but on this evidence she lacks the depth of sound and the sheer presence of the gypsy soul. In her final scene with José, she is like a schoolgirl head-butting an annoying boyfriend. The nobility of the moment escapes her. And she sometimes sings flat. But then Peter Wedd is throughout a tepid Don José, unsubtle in the Flower Song, more refined in his Act 1 duet with Micaëla, but with generally execrable French. Kostas Smoriginas’s Escamillo has presence and poise, but not enough body in the voice. A singing bull, one feels, would brush him aside; but he would go elegantly.

By far the best singing comes from Jessica Muirhead, especially stylish and charming in Micaëla’s Act 3 aria, but good also in the duet; and there is at least potentially good support from Amy Freston (Frasquita), Emma Carrington (Mercedes), Julian Boyce (Dancaïre) and Cárthaigh Quill (Remendado) – potentially, because on Friday their quintet sparkled only for as long as they and the conductor remained in the same time zone.

The production totters along, in its inevitable box set, no sign of Spain until a few oranges appear in Act 4, no heat o’ the sun, no procession, so that the Carmen/Escamillo duet comes out of the blue and only the music tells us that the tragedy is being acted out against a backcloth of ceremonious death. Maybe this self-denial once brought out the power of Bizet’s drama; these days it merely bypasses it.

Carmen usually deserves better of its interpreters but it also usually survives them


Editor Rating: 
Average: 1 (1 vote)

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"And indeed Friday’s audience played its part, clapping at every possible and a few impossible moments, appreciating everything, noticing nothing." Wow, that really is patronising.

Some of the comments in this review I would agree with: - The openning overture was played surprisingly quickly - Alessandra Volpe has presence but her first aria was disappointing, although the later arias improved; some of the notes seemed oddly low. I'm used to the Agnes Baltsha recording ... I think she can get better - I thought Jose was good; Micaëla got the ovation she deserved at the end of the opera; Escamillo was a little theatrical but enjoyable - The audience was a bit restless at times, humming and tapping the tunes; as is said, Caramen is immensly popular All in all a bit disappointing

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