Review: A Carmen that failed to catch fire

21 Apr 2013 @ 9.30 pm
| Entertainment
One of the most popular of all operas: Carmen

Review: Ellen Kent’s Carmen
Venue: Grand Opera House, April 20

After the first performance of Georges Bizet’s last opera Carmen in Paris in 1875, it was roundly condemned for its overt sexuality and tale of moral degeneration. Today, these are probably the attributes that make it one of the most popular of all operas. That and the brilliant music Bizet composed for it where great tunes just keep on coming with foot-tapping regularity.

So it was good to see York’s Grand Opera House packed to near capacity for producer/director Ellen Kent’s latest touring production of Bizet’s masterpiece.

The publicity for this production promises a spectacular staging with sets and costumes inspired by Goya’s paintings, with the addition of “a magnificent Andalucian stallion, rescue donkeys and choir boys.” The sets and costumes were certainly colourful but there was no sign of the stallion (the publicity small print did state that it doesn’t appear at all venues) or the choir boys as far as I could tell; the children in Avec la garde montane in Act One marched around to the music but didn’t sing the chorus.

However, Candyfloss the donkey made an appearance and I could just see his/her head from where I was sitting (a collection for rescue donkeys had been organised by the producers).

Adjectives such as “fiery”, “hot-blooded” and “passionate” are used a lot in the publicity but, sadly, for me this production simply failed to catch fire – which is a shame as it should have a lot going for it. It’s not that it was a bad performance but it just seemed to lack engagement and, well, passion. The stage action was rather stilted and a bit wooden; it was almost as if it was all happening in slow-motion. The fight between Don José and Escamillo in Act Three, for example, lacked any sense of testosterone-fuelled aggression.

The four principal roles in Carmen demand excellent singers and I have no complaints here. Mezzo soprano Nadia Stoianova was an assured and sultry-sounding Carmen and conveyed very convincingly why men would fall at her feet. Tenor Sorin Lupu as Don José was particularly good in the romantic numbers such as his Act One duet with Micaela and the Act 2 “flower song”.

Ecaterina Danu was strong and clear as Micaela while conveying the innocence of the character. Iurie Gisca as the toreador Escamillo had a powerful bass voice. He sang the “Toreador Song” in Act Two with assurance although a bit more arrogant swagger would’ve gone down well. Other roles sang well as did the chorus.

The orchestra (National Philharmonic of Chisinau) was positioned mostly in the pit under the stage but the tympani and harp were in the seating boxes at the side. For what seemed like a reasonable-sized orchestra, though, the sound they produced was small and often lacked impact, especially in the livelier and dramatic numbers. (In the energetic gypsy dance in Act 2 the orchestra was almost drowned out by the action on stage.)

However, there was a nice balance with the singers in the romantic songs and Conductor Nicolae Dohotaru kept up a good pace with well-judged tempi. It was a shame, though, that the orchestral entr’actes at the beginnings of Acts Two and Three were cut from this performance.

I was talking to someone during one of the intervals and he told me that this was the first opera he’d attended and was enjoying it very much. It’s great that companies like Opera & Ballet International are taking these shows on tour and introducing new audiences to the world of opera.

There was plenty to enjoy and I really want to be more enthusiastic about this Carmen but I just can’t when I know it can be done so much better.