A wild bird gloriously captured

Don Jose and Carmen

Fatal attraction: Don Jose, sung by David Butt Philip and Carmen sung by Clare Presland

Carmen

Nevill Holt Opera

****

ENGLISH Country House Opera has burgeoned since the late Leonard Ingrams opened his hillside manor at Garsington in 1989.

Nevill Holt Opera, charming and distinctive, is one of the outstanding new companies to hit the summer opera scene of late. It is riddled with young talent, beautifully run, relaxed and delightful in every respect.

The exquisite hilltop South Leicestershire manor’s recent revival owes itself wholly to the good taste and loving care of Carphone Warehouse’s co-founder David Ross, who has renewed its interior décor while not losing the original atmosphere (baronial hall, etc.), adorning house and grounds with works of modern art, sculptures (the bronze horse’s head poised above the valley is one of numerous inspirations), and planting out the mouthwatering walled gardens.

Fired by Grange Park and elsewhere, Ross has used his talents to build up aNevill Holt superb young opera company of his own, now in its fourth season. Nevill Holt Opera has mounted a staggeringly wise and clever Magic Flute, followed by La Bohème and The Turn of the Screw; and this summer, a Carmen that excelled in every department.

Nevill Holt

While opting for a straightforward, honest interpretation of Bizet’s best known hit, faithful to the original and shrewdly avoiding undue diversions or fancy invention, Ashley Page’s intelligent production flair brought elegance, some wonderful costuming, versatile sets, and much more. In short, Nevill Holt’s Carmen hit the jackpot.

The music was constantly engaging, with an orchestra that sounded youthful, alert and, wherever required, vital, punchy and energetic. Much of the instrumental solo work, woodwind above all, was magic and memorable. It fielded a team of principals who personified Carmen’s vexed characters capably, with lesser roles making a specially pleasing impact. The sextet of upper voices (factory girls, bandits), nicely directed, was always a vocal and visual treat; that of lower voices (the soldiery) was as brisk and polished as I can remember seeing.  

What was obvious was that, thanks to Page’s direction and instilled discipline, the group scenes – the soldiery (or Guardia Civil) at the start, the cigarette workers, some vivid children’s scenes, the shifting human blocks in the Act 3 smugglers’ scene – were splendidly marshalled from first to last.

Page’s skill in the direction of moves and especially those blockings – the chorus girls, the excited gatherings round bullfighter superstar Escamillo, the very focused, keyed-up and well-drilled youngsters from the David Ross Education Trust - made all the difference to the impact of the whole opera.

Page was ably abetted by his Designer, Simon Lima Holdsworth, who conjured four engaging sets, reusing shapes (packing cases) from the first to create a mirror impression in the fourth, and creating a thriving bar for Act 2 which reversed to provide the bullring exterior in the las Act. These trompes d’oeil are vital: they establish subliminally a consistency and continuity that welds the opera together.

An unnerving image that dominated Act 3 – the whitened, bare-boned carcase of a dead ox or steer (a preecho of the bull fight that will bring disaster later) – showed just what can be achieved with one haunting, economical idea: it was an unforgiving landscape.

The vocal hit, as was obvious from the audience’s curtain call reactions, was Nadine Livingston’s gloriously sung,Escamillo slightly matronly Micaëla. Aptly accompanied – orchestral triplets heralding her first appearance, a superb clarinet solo when she hopefully turns up in the hills - she had the gift of bringing out David Butt Philip’s Don José, who was at his best in the exchanges with his abandoned love, especially their nostalgic encounter in Act I, celebrating village, home and mother. Dominic Walsh and Adrian Dwyer made a vocally satisfying pair of bandits.

The arrival of toreador Escamillo, sung by Paul Carey Jones, at Lillas Pastia's bar

Katie Grosset’s Mercédès proved a treat paired with, not Daisy Brown (who acted out her role on stage), but Elizabeth Ryder, who stood in for Frasquita owing to Brown’s vocal indisposition. Ryder sang from the pit, and what an admirable sound she made, not least as a vocal twosome with Grosset. The card-playing patter lost none of its edgy impact.

WNO’s Paul Carey Jones produced an effective Escamillo, mixing pleasing upper and lower register in Acts 3 and 4, and arriving on a motorcycle in black leathers, singing the Toreador song appealingly, without excessive show. Near the end his ‘Si tu m’aimes, Carmen’ was profoundly moving.

Martin Lamb’s Zuniga was especially pleasing. Often a lean and hungry figure, keen to indulge his own lusts and passions, the Captain was here an affable, avuncular figure, enjoying a good meal, a coffee or a pint but keeping an eye on his enthusiastic young team; comic when bundled out. Toby Girling added a neat cameo early on in the smaller part of Corporal Moralès.

Clare Presland, Nevill Holt’s able, feisty, pretty nasty Carmen, has a marked presence: producing a fairly merciless Carmen of suitable bitterness and bitchiness (‘If I love you, take care!’ she warns). No tolerance, no noblesse oblige from this child of the peasantry. ‘Près des remparts de Séville’ and her subsequent castanet-accompanied seduction of Don José were high points, and she positively beamed in both the Act 2 quintet (as did all

four others) and the famous trio with her two girls in Act 3.

Presland took a little time to win one wholly round, and David Butt Philip’s Don José needed fractionally more so. Butt Philip scored more as the story unfolded. His enunciation was splendid. Taunted by ‘Soldier boy, go back to the barracks’, he grew in stature late in Act 2 and never really looked back. His delivery was forceful and accurate, commanding rather than plaintive, insistent, domineering; so by the last Act, emerging from behind sultry pillars, he had established a real aggression.

Nevill Holt’s handpicked orchestra shone throughout in the pit. One had only to hear the intensely felt prelude to Act 1, or the relative enchantment of the interlude before Act 2 to sense here was an ensemble which had been well nursed and shrewcigarette girlsdly prepared. Nevill Holt’s conductor, Nicholas Chalmers, has proved already his leadership talents – including steady calm and discernment – that are fundamental to the new opera company’s success.

The cigarette factory girls flaunt themselves with the randy soldiery

The cigarette girls’ emergence yielded a memorable sequence of clarinet, strings and then flute. There was a fine flurry of panicky brass, and then band-like sounds in the orchestra, as the girls set about a fight; and a terrific patch of pizzicato flute shortly before Carmen escapes. Bassoon (Alex Davidson) then clarinet opened Act 2 beguilingly, followed by paired flutes (Alice Eddie, Helen James); and a striking equivalent evolution from the brass (trumpet-trombone-horn) as Escamillo is hailed.

When Dancairo and Remendado generate a cheerful scherzo, Chalmers elicited a recapitulation from his galvanised ensemble even better than the first hearing; even the clarinet arpeggios to back up Jose’s anguished bleats were strikingly effective.   

Whispers of the Fate tune as the girls bickered were eerie and troubling; and the cavorting flutes over the cards (‘La mort!’) were as sensational as Micaëla’s lulling clarinet. Bizet always has some subcurrent running: Chalmers’ success consisted in finding it, and bringing it out.

This fine Carmen, like their earlier Magic Flute, showed just what Nevill Holt can do. It is already one of the most enjoyable venues in the UK. Now we know it has its own brand of excellence.

Roderic Dunnett

02-07-15 

Nevill Holt Opera

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