Passion, rage and glorious music

carmentop

Colour and excitement as the crowds rush forward, held back by a rope at the front of the stage, with a hint of My Fair Lady, to greet the arrival of the sporting stars of the day, the bullfighters..

Carmen

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

WNO’S Carmen is a bit of a dull affair on the surface. A dreary three sided box of a setting, mixed with a dark, closed bar full of stacked tables and chairs and a mountaintop at night - none of the glorious light, colour or heat of 19th Century Seville.

So it is up to the cast to being some life and vibrancy to Bizet’s tale of love, jealousy and passion and what a splendid job they do, in no short measure due to young conductor James Southall.

A mere stripling of a lad in conductor terms, a former organ scholar who has performed on piano, organ and cello, he should have a golden future ahead of him.

Standing higher than most conductors, where the top of a head or a waving baton is all that is normally seen, he becomes part of the performance himself.

The young maestro seems to live every note, happily singing along Jose and Carmenwith chorus and solos, coaxing every emotion, nuance and shades of colour from the score and encouraging the, as always, excellent WNO Orchestra.

From the opening bars of the overstore, one of the most recognisable starts in theatre, the tone is set for an emotional roller coaster.

Mezzo-soprano Alessandro Volpe is a splendid Carmen, sensuous, attractive, sultry, with a voice full of colour, emotion and power in a performance all the more remarkable in that this was her penultimate performance in the role for now - with a child due early in the New Year – best wishes for that. Her baby will at least enter the world with a good grounding in Bizet!

A final farewell from Don José sung by Peter Wedd to Carmen sung by Alessandra Volpe

She manages to sing with contempt, defiance, sexuality and seduction in her voice, all in the same song at times. If ever a singer was born to play a role she is it.

Tenor Peter Wedd is a good foil as Don José, he has a fine voice and his La fleur que tu m'avais jetée, the flower song, is one of the vocal highlights.

In truth the good Don is just that, a bit too good, although he is reduced to the ranks and imprisoned and forced to desert from the army and become a brigand all because of his love for her – whatever happened to a nice meal and a bunch of flowers to win the heart of fair lady – he has no real spark of bad boy bravado or danger to ignite Carmen’s simmering gypsy passion. Carmen is surrounded by smugglers, brigands and assorted low life where the good Don comes over as a bit of a wimp.

Not so the new love in her life, toreador Escamillo, who appears to be built for opera rather than bull fighting in the form of powerful Australian bass-baritone Simon Thorpe, full of flamboyant gestures and booming voice. He introduces himself with one of the most famous and recognisable songs in the whole of Opera, The Toreador’s Song.

An outsider to the love triangle around the barracks and bullring is Micaëla, a girl from José’s home village, who brings him messages from his mother. Jessica Muirhead gives us a rather sweet and innocent country girl with a clear, soprano voice that grows in power and emotion as does her role as she tries to rescue José from the clutches of Carmen and then has to tell him his mother is dying. In an ideal world José would do what his mother wants and head off home with her to settle down and get married, but when was opera ever about ideal worlds?

There is good support from bass Aidan Smith as the bullying lieutenant Zuniga and baritone Julian Boyce and tenorMicaela sung byJessica Muirhead Cárthaigh Quill make good smugglers as Le Dancaïre and le Remendado as well as some lovely singing from the other soloists including Emma Carrington  and Amy Freston as Carmen's co-workers in the local cigarette factory Mercédès and Frasquita.

It is only in the final act that the colour and sunlight of Seville appear as the crowds gather around orange sellers to see the bullfighters arrive, which is another chance for an lively group of young lads to shine as street urchins.

They had all taken on board that most basic of stage directions – on stage you act all the time not just when you are speaking or singing.

Jessica Muirhead had a vulnerable quality and clear soprano as Micaëla

Carmen and her bullfighter express their love for each other, seen by José, and when he confronts Carmen and pleads with her to come back to him and she contemptuously refuses, Carmen’s gypsy Tarot cards have taken a turn for the worse - after all this is opera, so somebody has to fail to make the final curtain – so we see José with bloodies hands, trudging off alone into the sunset as the curtain slowly falls.

Christian Fenouillat’s set is basic relying on Christophe Forey’s lighting to bring a bit of life along with Agostino Cavalca’s excellent costumes.

Caroline Chaney, the revival director, seems to have beefed up into Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s original, and with the enthusiasm and coaxing of conductor James Southall and the excellent WNO Orchestra, the result is an enjoyable and memorable performance of one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. To 20-11-14

Roger Clarke

19-11-14

WNO’s Moses in Egypt is performed on Friday, 21-11-14 and William Tell on Saturday, 22-11-14.

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