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Sincerity with Sensuality and Sinew: Carmen

16 June 2017

Carmen

by Georges Bizet, libretto Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

Grange Festival at The Grange, Hampshire until 8th July

Review by Mark Aspen

Spitting and stabbings and incendiary sex-drives were not the sort of thing that one could entertain one’s proverbial maiden aunts with in 1875, even in Paris, and the first Parisian audiences had to at least pretend that they didn’t like it.  So poor Georges Bizet may have died thinking that Carmen had flopped and that it was the least popular of his works, but history has shown it to be the world’s most popular and most performed opera.

With its hummable tunes and bold colourful characters, Carmen has also become a popular opera in the sniffy sense of “pop op”.  However, that mould of the pastiche is well and truly smashed with The Grange Festival’s current production of Bizet’s Andalusian sizzler.  Here is a production that has depth, that has sinew and that has veracity.  This is the only production of Carmen that has moved me to really feel for the characters and genuinely to care about their plight.

The plot of Carmen is driven by two themes: jealousy, which here doesn’t just bubble under the surface, but rushes along in an overwhelming torrent; and of course, that sex-drive, which in this production motors at full revs with twin turbos.  However, what is firmly established is that it is the women who take the driving seat.   The opening scene in the square in Seville has the soldiers harassing the innocent Micaëla in a darkly menacing way.  She is only rescued from the threatening “gang-bang”, by the changing of the guard and the subsequent shift-change at the nearby tobacco factory, when the tobacco girls show them who really call the shots.  The softened soldiers sing “les paroles d’amour”, but the girls tell them “peut-être demain”.  Then they call for Carmen.   “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle …”, the famous habanera, establishes Carmen, for whom it would be an understatement to say that she is her own woman.

Carmen - The Grange Festival

The Grange Festival has created the world of Carmen (in the only just refurbished theatre building at The Grange) as a beautifully simple visual metaphor, initially seen as an empty stage backed by an immense cyclorama of quilted silk, reminiscent of birds’ wings, onto which projected images of various birds emerge and dissolve in the different moods of “l’oiseau rebelle”.   These images, created by acclaimed video designer, Dick Straker, enhance the atmospheric lighting of established opera lighting designer, Peter Mumford, and form part of an integrated fluid set design by the versatile Joanna Parker.  The set re-creates itself openly between acts using a series of trucked angled platforms brought on by the chorus to become variously the tobacco factory, Lillas Pasta’s blue-light clubrooms, the mountains or the Seville bullfighting arena.  Parker has collaborated with director Annabel Arden in the movement chorography, which again is integrated into the design such that surging groups: factory shifts, platoons of soldiers, arguing mobs, bands of brigands or bullfight spectators become part of the setting and of the music.

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

The concept of integration is taken up by The Grange Festival Chorus, its ensemble engaging the multi-layered musical perspective effortlessly into the opera.  The   Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Jean Luc Tingaud is musically faultless and take Bizet’s score with the energetic attack that it deserves, whilst still savouring all of the lyrical nuances of the piece.  (Remarkably, Tingaud studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Manuel Rosenthal, then of advanced years, who in turn had worked with some of the original artists from Carmen’s 1875 Paris premiere.)   Whilst Carmen is popularly famous for its forte passages, BSO greatly enhance the lyrical passages and, at the beginning of Act III, bring the flute soloist onto the stage for the crystal clear Prelude, which interweaves a harp accompaniment and clarinet response: beautiful.

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

However, Carmen’s fire is sparked by its eponymous free-spirted anti-heroine.  Carmen    flits through the interstices of society with a vixen-like agility, sharp, sensual, seductive, but skilful, shrewd and perceptive.   Israeli mezzo-soprano Na’ama Goldman excels as Carmen, her luscious velvety voice speaking in fiery song for the character, and inhabiting Carmen’s restless soul.  Carmen sings “toujours l’amour”, but her conflicting impulsive instinct, “je veux être libree” is the cause of the downfall of the hapless Don José, who becomes obsessively infatuated with Carmen.  American-Italian tenor Leonardo Capalbo is totally convincing in this role, a man hopelessly smitten in spite of his own better council, and that of Micaëla his child-hood sweetheart.  Carmen dances her habanera, which presciently finishes “prends garde á toi”, throws the flower and José is irredeemably snared.  Capalbo’s rendering of José’s response,  “la fleur que tu m’avais jetée’” is reflective and lyrical.  But as José slides down a spiral of total enthrallment, Capalbo shifts his tone into the realm of the dramatic tenor, exploring José’s anguish and conflicting emotions.

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

Silly man, we say, he should have stayed with Micaëla, his sweetheart from back home in Navarre, who truly loves him and has sought him out to bring a messages from his ailing mother, coming vicariously with “un baiser de ma mère”.  Shelley Jackson, much acclaimed internationally as in the USA, gives a beautiful portrayal of Micaëla, of her sweet innocence and her devotion.  Jackson sings with great charm and grace bringing all the skills of the lyrical soprano to the role. We are frequently led to glimpse Micaëla as a Madonna, embodying both young virgin and mother.  (Indeed costume co-designer Ilona Karas drapes her in Madonna blue.)

Carmen - Bizet - The Grange Festival - 11 June 2017 Conductor - Jean-Luc Tingaud Director - Annabel Arden Designer - Joanna Parker Lighting - Peter Mumford Carmen - Na’ama Goldman Don José - Leonardo Capalbo Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes Michael - Shell

The toreador, Escamillo, glorious but arrogant, courageous but full of bravado, needs a singer with great aplomb, and Phillip Rhodes is impressive in this role.  The well-known Toreador’s song is delivered with great attack and Rhodes effortlessly fills the full range of the baritone voice demanded by the piece.

Carmen - The Grange Festival

Sopranos Marianne Croux and Filipa van Eck are very spirited as Carmen’s companions Frasquita and Mercédès and are a joy to watch.   In Act II, Lillas Pasta’s becomes a glitzy late twentieth century nightclub, complete with silver slit-drape and roll-along glitter-balls, which make a stylish sparkling setting for Frasquita and Mercédès to perform with Carmen, and here we also see Croux and van Eck’s dancing skills.  The smugglers, Le Dancaire and le Remendado appear, played by Tiago Matos and Christophe Poncet de Solages as a pair of wide-boys.  Mutually supportive, they catch just that right amount of vaudeville humour, and with Frasquita and Mercédès they form a well-differentiated foursome.   Together they explode with ensemble energy for the quintet,”nous avons en tête une affaire”.

The lowest registers are in fine hands with Russian-American bass Grigory Soloviov as Captain of the Guard, Zuniga, acted as slow on the uptake, whilst sung with rich resonance.

The Grange Festival’s Carmen is undoubtedly an outstanding production, but for this reviewer has one irritating flaw.  Bizet’s score with Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto has much spoken dialogue which is often cut.  Here, having cut most of the dialogue and some recitative, it is replaced by an extraneous commentary, delivered by two narrators, La Commère and Le Compère (the gossip and her crony?).  They explain what is happening, seemingly for any six-year olds who may be watching.  They are forever pulling the focus and breaking the musical continuity and emotional momentum.   (The nadir comes with a mimed description of the bull-fighting arena.  Draw out a circle, ah, it’s a ring; flap a cloak, ah, it’s for bull-fighting; bring in a plate of oranges, ah, it’s in Seville … geddit?).  All the production’s exemplary acting and dancing, the beautiful singing and Bizet’s brilliantly crafted music speak for themselves.  Why not let them speak?

Carmen - The Grange Festival

Nevertheless, this is a Carmen that is truly exceptional.  It puts aside the superficial of a rollicking good story to probe its darker depths, and examine the powerful human emotions, the irresistible strength of the animal sensuality that is Carmen, and her allure, an allure that gathers all around in her thrall.  This is an allure that leaves Don José pitifully consumed and helplessly deluded, a fatal delusion that leads the opera to its climactic conclusion.

Mark Aspen

June 2017

Photographs by Robert Workman

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From → Opera, Reviews

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