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Donna Bateman (Rusalka) [Photo by Robert Workman]
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Rusalka and La tragedie de Carmen by English Touring Opera

Of their two tours per year, English Touring Opera tends to channel the majority of the budget into the Spring season, and the Autumn tour – despite a focus in recent years on some high-quality Baroque chamber works, which lend themselves well to the size of the venues around the UK which the company visits – can be rather noticeably the poor relation.

Rusalka and La tragedie de Carmen by English Touring Opera

Above: Donna Bateman (Rusalka)

All photos by Robert Workman courtesy of English Touring Opera


So Carmen and Rusalka seemed an ambitious prospect for this year's Autumn slot, without any apparent increase in resources.

One of the two, Rusalka – Dvorak's retelling of the Undine fable dealing with loss of innocence and the impossibility of survival in an alien world – reached the stage almost intact. The original orchestration is of Wagnerian proportions, and inevitably a 13-piece reduction (created for the Iford Festival by Ian Farrington) cannot create a sound-world of anything approaching the same depth, but there were few actual cuts, and the small orchestra under conductor Alex Ingram did its best to sound sumptuous and shimmering.

Director James Conway has chosen to present the opposite worlds of the water-dwellers and the humans through the medium of a real-life cultural divide – the American colonisation of Haiti in 1915. The casting reflected this, with black singers as the Water Sprite and nymphs, and white singers in the human roles. The only exception was the white Jezibaba, ostensibly a survivor of Haiti's indigenous Taino race – though I confess I wondered if this angle might have been dreamt up because ETO couldn't think of a black mezzo to cast in the role.

The general concept, though, was ingenious, successfully conveying a culture of unwitting ignorance and an irreconcilable chasm of difference between peoples, each 'side' unconsciously incapable of viewing the other as equal.

In the title role, Donna Bateman lacked legato occasionally, but her performance was full-voiced, passionate and involving, a very physical portrayal of a would-be free spirit who feels trapped and unfulfilled in her own world, but who finds that every step she takes only leads her to a new prison. As the Prince, Richard Roberts had ardour, good looks and a lyrical, evenly-produced tenor, while Fiona Kimm's Jezibaba was a tour de force.

Keel Watson was a characterful Water Sprite, his full bass caressing the melancholy falling phrases. The trio of nymphs – Angela Caesar, Abigail Kelly and Alison Crookendale – were mellifluously pleasing to the ear when singing together, with Caesar's light and attractive soprano a particular solo highlight. The Gamekeeper (Maciek O'Shea) and Turnspit (Jessica Summers) were lively and engaging in their second-act cameo, while as the Foreign Princess, Camilla Roberts was vocally powerful, full of hauteur and chillingly unpleasant in her snide insults towards Rusalka.

rusalka_092.pngMaciek O'Shea (Gamekeeper), Jessica Summers (Turnspit)

The staging and lighting were very simple, with minimal set and a backdrop consisting of a giant corrugated moon.

carmen_115.pngLeah Marian Jones (Carmen)
Far more adventurous, though maintaining the theme of cultural contrast, was La tragedie de Carmen, Peter Brook's short theatrical piece based on, but not a direct equivalent of, Bizet's opera. In an effort to be faithful to the spirit of Mérimée, it presents the bare bones of the story in a single act, a nightmarish sequence of flashbacks haunting the demented Don José, who at the start has Carmen's blood fresh on his hands.

Brook's version was created in 1981 and is only licensed for performance in French, which – although ETO prefers to perform as much as possible in English – director Andrew Steggall capitalises upon, staging it as a film noir. It all feels quintessentially French: the Carmen, Leah-Marian Jones, with her fair colouring and feline eyes and demeanour, comes across as a sultry French chanteuse a la Marlene Dietrich rather than a gypsy.

Marius Constant's score, freely adapted from Bizet's, makes imaginative use of orchestral colouring, using percussion to particularly evocative effect. All Carmen's own arias survive, but she sings them as introspective solo concert-pieces not addressed to anybody in particular, and Nicholas Garrett is made to croon the Toreador Song in a similarly intimate and non-operatic style. The straight 'operatic' numbers bloom like moments of unexpected beauty, and are mostly reserved for Don José (David Curry) and Micaela (Sinéad Campbell-Wallace), evoking the world of innocence from which they originate.

La tragédie is a juxtaposition of this musical beauty with raw, violent horror; in little over an hour, Don José is dragged further and further into obsession and madness, bludgeoning Carmen's gypsy husband with a bull's skull in a breathtaking piece of shadow-play. Not even Escamillo gets out of the nightmare in one piece.

carmen_160.pngMaciek O'Shea (ZUNIGA), David Curry (Don Jose)

It is the kind of piece which would normally lend itself to performance in an off-West-End studio by a cast of theatrically-trained singing actors, and it was a luxury to hear it performed by opera singers. Moreover, it was an extremely powerful drama.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

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