mon 15/07/2024

Carmen, Glyndebourne review - total musical fusion | reviews, news & interviews

Carmen, Glyndebourne review - total musical fusion

Carmen, Glyndebourne review - total musical fusion

Production tells the story, mostly, but it’s the lead and the conductor who electrify

Rihab Chaieb's Carmen overcomes the resistance of Don Jose (Dmytro Popov) at Lillas Pastia'sAll images by Richard Hubert Smith © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd

It’s what you dream of in opera but don’t often get: singers feeling free and liberated to give their best after weeks of preparation with a master conductor. Glyndebourne Music Director Robin Ticciati leads the way with a peerless London Philharmonic Orchestra in Bizet’s absolute masterpiece, and Tunisian-Canadian mezzo Rihab Chaieb’s Carmen stuns in a vocally magnificent cast.

Better still if everything else aligns, as it did in Irish National Opera’s recent L’Olimpiade. Not quite so much here, given a production by Tony award winner Diane Paulus which tells the story for the most part – a mercy after Damiano Michieletto’s and Barrie Kosky’s half-cock Royal Opera Carmens – but has its flaws: seen-it-all before Latin police state, a first act squashed up against the front of the stage (maybe ditch the military vehicle) which only properly makes sense retrospectively in the more convincingly claustrophobic final confrontation between free spirit Carmen and discarded lover Don José, and some naff choreography gamely executed by six vigorous dancers. The chief virtue here is tremendous energy in the crowd scenes, giving us a second act, allowng Riccardo Hernández's set design to come into ts own, which hurtles along, surely one of the most consistently inspired in all opera (pictured below: Dmitry Cheblykov's Escamillo held aloft)..Scene from Glyndebourne CarmenTicciati immediately flings us into a hell-for-leather but perfectly articulated Prelude, but where Michieletto at least gave us a figure of fate in the sudden introductory switch to tragedy, soldiers on a parapet above a cage (the cigarette factory where the worker women are contained) and a girl placing flowers on the wire don’t quite work with the music. The one big confusion is the supposed fight within between Carmen and a co-worker: there isn’t nearly enough time for anything to pan out as the chorus narrates, and no hint of the victim.Does Paulus want to soften the crazy side of her heroine? We don’t need to like Carmen all the time to admire her spirit and resolution; she’s only partly a feminist icon, after all.

Even so, Chaieb transfixes from her first entry, liberated from the blue overalls which the other caged girls display. Her Habanera uses sex as power, utterly convincing; the Séguidille she sings and dances to seduce her captor José more completely is perfect (as it was with Aigul Akhmetshina, who also had every vocal colour necessary at the Royal Opera but wasn’t allowed to be a Carmen without hazy directorial interference: she should shine in the second run of Glyndebourne performances). Jeans may not be a flattering look, but Chaieb is totally at ease in her body throughout, utterly believable at every point. Scene from Glyndebourne CarmenThere’s a big problem, as there was at Covent Garden: though the opera is named after its heroine, it could be Carmen and José. Without a tenor who can act as fiercely as he sings – and Dmytro Popov (pictured above with Sofia Fomina's Micaëla) gears up for every vocal challenge, managing a diminuendo on the famous top B flat – we only get half the story. During the Flower Song, well handled, our eyes are on Carmen, which matters up to a point: this is where Paulus underlines that the seducer finds herself in deeper than she expected.

Popov isn’t entirely wooden, but definitely more of the stand-and-deliver tenor type; we need a relationship that scorches, and that I’ve so far only seen from Roberto Alagna and Elīna Garanča at the Met, the hard-to-match ideal. Chaieb also carries the final scene, far more dangerous in its moves than Michieletto’s. The almost tender “it’s over”, the panic and the pride: these have us on the edge of our seats and won Chaieb an instant full standing ovation last night. Smuggler's group in Glyndebourne CarmenHer Escamillo is the best I’ve seen: muscle-man with name on bare chest, vocally daring – again Ticciati gives the superb Dmitry Cheblykov space to maneouvre – and backed up by high-octane crowd. The ensuing Quintet in which Carmen’s fellow-smugglers – of people, it turns out in Act Three, not merchandise – try to persuade her to join the next mission has ideal crispness and dynamic variety: Elisabeth Boudreault, Kezia Bienek (a fine Carmen herself), Loïc Félix and François Piolino lend the vital three-quarters French authenticity, though it’s Boudreault who eventually takes a special bouquet for her leap in the air on a high note as she foresees the death of a rich husband in the cards (pictured above: Bienek, Popov, Piolino, Félix, Chaieb and Boudreault in Act Three). 

Dingell Yandell is charismatic and imposing as ill-fated Zuniga (you’ll have to find out why the Orange Seller outside the bullring addresses a “cher monsieur” rather then “officier”). We have a pure lyric Micaëla in the naturally musical Sofia Fomina, allowed her dignity throughout – she’s a Red Cross volunteer at the start, not Michieletto’s stereotyped gawk in glasses – and magically supported in her aria especially by the absolute clarity of the cellos’ rising and falling phrases. Act 4 Chorus in CarmenEvery orchestral touch is beautifully nuanced, giving Bizet’s miniaturist perfection its head in the Entr’actes; no wonder there was instant applause for the idyll before the Act Three curtain-up, meltingly intoned at first by flautist Juliette Bausor and like its predecessor free of the rubbish stage business of Michieletto. There’s more of the dialogue than usual, and it works perfectly with the crackling but not overdriven pace Ticciati engages in each contrasting act. Singing children (Glyndebourne Youth Opera, Trinity Boys Choir) and adults (Glyndebourne Opera Chorus, the best of young talent as always) give their big roles full value, and the out-front showbiz staging in Act Four (pictured above) helps here. Not perfect, then, but musically as good as you’ll get. The August team should have inspirational guidance, too, gven the energy and focus of conductor Anja Bihlmaier.

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