sat 14/12/2019

Carmen, Welsh National Opera review - intermittent brilliance in a gloomy, unclear environment | reviews, news & interviews

Carmen, Welsh National Opera review - intermittent brilliance in a gloomy, unclear environment

Carmen, Welsh National Opera review - intermittent brilliance in a gloomy, unclear environment

Bizet's tragic masterpiece well sung but short on dramatic momentum

Carmen Act !: Seville or Rio, town square or tenement?Bill Cooper

You can love Carmen as much as you like (as much as I do, for instance), and still have a certain sympathy for the poor director who has to find something new to say about a work so anchored in a particular style and place. For all its musical and dramatic brilliance, Bizet’s piece is a litter of stereotypes: the wild gipsy girl, the village ingénue, the strutting toreador, the smugglers (all forty or fifty of them), the Spanish dancers, the castanets, the wiggling hips.

Jo Davies’s non-solution to this problem is to relocate the work from Seville to somewhere in Brazil - though I only know this from reading her programme note, which also reveals - more tellingly - that she supposes Carmen’s death to be traditionally regarded as the just reward of a gypsy whore. Has anyone ever actually thought this? You might as well say that Lear dies because he had a bad lawyer. But in recreating Carmen as a sensitive but self-dependent middle-class girl (from wherever), Davies slightly misses her point, which is that she is the genuinely tragic, outlawed victim of a rigid social code that she flouts once too often - a female Don Giovanni, if you like, who when confronted by death accepts it heroically rather than deny her nature. Forget #MeToo. To rope Carmen in as a victim of Anglo-Saxon male prejudice is simply to confuse the cart with the horse.

But since I’m reviewing the performance and not the programme note, I’ll say that not much of the above is apparent on the stage. What we see is Leslie Travers’s single, very gloomy half-round set, a sort of balconied tenement, half-concealed (for some reason) by wire barriers from a building site. This serves for all four acts, including the mountain setting of Act 3, in which, ludicrously, security guards patrol the balconies with flashlights but overlook the massed chorus of smugglers, smugglers’ children and even a  dancer or two in the open courtyard. As so often in such cases, the sung text (though not of course the newly commissioned dialogue) contradicts these arrangements at many points, but since British audiences can’t understand French, all you need to change is the surtitles.

Costume-wise (Gabrielle Dalton), we might be in Seville, Rio, Bayonne or anywhere where you can pick up a few mantillas and get to a cheap bullfight. Even Escamillo fights, it seems, in his waistcoat. Disappointing if not unrealistic. But the lack of light and visual brilliance tends to block Bizet’s ironies, except perhaps in Lillas Pastia’s, where low lighting, clutter and noise are the thing, and Davies’s direction is at its liveliest.

What we hear, in the main, is a strongish cast sometimes struggling to find the right pace and atmosphere of a work that, at its best, can transform its conventions into something like a force of nature. Virginie Verrez (pictured below with Dimitri Pittas), a French soprano trained in America, is a lovely, watchable, warm-voiced Carmen who only half convinces as the free spirit bred under the hot sun of Mérimée’s Spain. She’s the girl next door, loves kids, dogs and boys, sheds a tear or two when José decamps in Act 3, turns up at the bullfight in a backless Liberty’s dress, and stands around waiting to be knifed as if waiting for a no.7 bus. But she has a fine feeling for Bizet’s sensuous melodies and knows how to move onstage, if not in an entirely gypsyish way.

Her Don José, Dimitri Pittas, is from the start a shambling, rather hopeless figure, a strong rather than refined tenor, well enough controlled  in the Flower Song, but curiously passive when Micaëla tells him about his mother’s letter, as if already weaned (rather early) from thoughts of his Navarre home by Carmen’s flower. Anita Watson, by contrast, is a bright, personable village girl, beautifully composed in her big aria, with bags of presence and never at all the simpering victim. Phillip Rhodes is a sturdy Escamillo, not helped by some upstage placings and especially not by having to sing his last act duet with Carmen alone on the balcony while she responds from the crowd below.

Minor castings are uniformly strong: Harriet Eyley and Angela Simkin as Carmen’s two companions, Frasquita and Mercédès, Benjamin Bevan and Joe Roche as the chief smugglers - all brilliant in their quintet - and Henry Waddington as an ample-voiced, ample-bodied Zuniga. The chorus is strong as ever, and the children’s chorus terrific, if too noisy when not singing (the flutes that bring in their changing-of-the-guard are well worth hearing). 

But I wish I could be enthusiastic about Tomáš Hanus’s conducting. For once he seems out of his field, uneasy in his pacing and, in the great final scene, unable to generate the tension that should drive the music and the action to their remorseless end. The orchestra, especially the woodwind (flutes always to the fore), do their best for him. But the music’s real dramatic power eludes him.

A strongish cast sometimes struggling to find the right pace and atmosphere

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Comments

When I saw the Carmen front cloth revealed I thought of sun and heat and passion in other words Spain.I thought we were in for a similar staging. When the stage was revealed I felt the opposite, no heat, no passion just a sense of depression. I couldn't work out what the set and the fencing were meant to achieve. WNO have a habit of staging productions in a way that deliberately detract from the composer's intentions. Why? I couldn't believe that this was Bizet's Carmen. Fortunately the music side was much better and that made up for some staging failure.

I wish I had read your review before I attended last night. Totally agree with you on the Children, I think they could teach the adults about passion and I detest child performers as a rule. Pale skinned tattooed waif is not what I expected for Carmen. Summed up in one word without the use of profanity: 'Drab'.

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