Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Covent Garden’s Otello: Superb singing defies Warner’s uneven production

I have seen productions of Verdi’s Otello which have been revolutionary, even subversive. I have now seen one which is the complete antithesis of that.

Solomon’s Knot: Charpentier - A Christmas Oratorio

When Marc-Antoine Charpentier returned from Rome to Paris in 1669 or 1670, he found a musical culture in his native city that was beginning to reject the Italian style, which he had spent several years studying with the Jesuit composer Giacomo Carissimi, in favour of a new national style of music.

A Baroque Odyssey: 40 Years of Les Arts Florissants

In 1979, the Franco-American harpsichordist and conductor, William Christie, founded an early music ensemble, naming it Les Arts Florissants, after a short opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Miracle on Ninth Avenue

Gian Carlo Menotti’s holiday classic, Amahl and the Night Visitors, was the first recorded opera I ever heard. Each Christmas Eve, while decorating the tree, our family sang along with the (still unmatched) original cast version. We knew the recording by heart, right down to the nicks in the LP. Ever since, no matter what the setting or the quality of a performance, I cannot get through it without tearing up.

Detlev Glanert: Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch (UK premiere)

It is perhaps not surprising that the Hamburg-born composer Detlev Glanert should count Hans Werner Henze as one of the formative influences on his work - he did, after all, study with him between 1984 to 1988.

Death in Venice at Deutsche Oper Berlin

This death in Venice is not the end, but the beginning.

Saint Cecilia: The Sixteen at Kings Place

There were eighteen rather than sixteen singers. And, though the concert was entitled Saint Cecilia the repertoire paid homage more emphatically to Mary, Mother of Jesus, and to the spirit of Christmas.

Insights on Mahler Lieder, Wigmore Hall, Andrè Schuen

At the Wigmore Hall, Andrè Schuen and Daniel Heide in a recital of Schubert and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Rückert-Lieder. Schuen has most definitely arrived, at least among the long-term cognoscenti at the Wigmore Hall who appreciate the intelligence and sensitivity that marks true Lieder interpretation.

Ermelinda by San Francisco's Ars Minerva

It’s an opera by Vicentino composer Domenico Freschi that premiered in 1681 at the country home of the son of the doge of Venice. Villa Contarini is a couple of hours on horseback from Vicenza, and a few hours by gondola from Venice).

Wozzeck in Munich

It would be an extraordinary, even an unimaginable Wozzeck that failed to move, to chill one to the bone. This was certainly no such Wozzeck; Marie’s reading from the Bible, Wozzeck’s demise, the final scene with their son and the other children: all brought that particular Wozzeck combination of tears and horror.

Korngold's Die tote Stadt in Munich

I approached this evening as something of a sceptic regarding work and director. My sole prior encounter with Simon Stone’s work had not been, to put it mildly, a happy one. Nor do I count myself a subscriber or even affiliate to the Korngold fan club, considerable in number and still more considerable in fervency.

Exceptional song recital from Hurn Court Opera at Salisbury Arts Centre

Thanks to the enterprise and vision of Lynton Atkinson - Artistic Director of Dorset-based Hurn Court Opera - two promising young singers on the threshold of glittering careers gave an outstanding recital at Salisbury’s prestigious Art Centre.

Lohengrin in Munich

An exceptional Lohengrin, this. I had better explain. Yes, it was exceptional in the quality of much of the singing, especially the two principal female roles, yet also in luxury casting such as Martin Gantner as the King’s Herald.

Hansel and Gretel in San Francisco

This Grimm’s fairytale in its operatic version found its way onto the War Memorial stage in the guise of a new “family friendly” production first seen last holiday season at London’s Royal Opera House.

An hypnotic Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House

Spot-lit in the prevailing darkness, Gustav von Aschenbach frowns restively as he picks up an hour-glass from a desk strewn with literary paraphernalia, objects d’art, time-pieces and a pair of tall candles in silver holders - by the light of which, so Thomas Mann tells us in his novella Death in Venice, the elderly writer ‘would offer up to art, for two or three ardently conscientious morning hours, the strength he had garnered during sleep’.

Philip Glass's Orphée at English National Opera

Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orphée - and Philip Glass’s chamber opera based on the film - are so closely intertwined it should not be a surprise that this new production for English National Opera often seems unable to distinguish the two. There is never a shred of ambiguity that cinema and theatre are like mirrors, a recurring feature of this production; and nor is there much doubt that this is as opera noir it gets.

Rapt audience at Dutch National Opera’s riveting Walküre

“Don’t miss this final chance – ever! – to see Die Walküre”, urges the Dutch National Opera website.

Sarah Wegener sings Strauss and Jurowski’s shattering Mahler

A little under a month ago, I reflected on Vladimir Jurowski’s tempi in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’. That willingness to range between extremes, often within the same work, was a very striking feature of this second concert, which also fielded a Mahler symphony - this time the Fifth. But we also had a Wagner prelude and Strauss songs to leave some of us scratching our heads.

Manon Lescaut in San Francisco

Of the San Francisco Opera Manon Lescauts (in past seasons Leontyne Price, Mirella Freni, Karita Mattila among others, all in their full maturity) the latest is Armenian born Parisian finished soprano Lianna Haroutounian in her role debut. And Mme. Haroutounian is surely the finest of them all.

A lukewarm performance of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette from the LSO and Tilson Thomas

A double celebration was the occasion for a packed house at the Barbican: the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s birth, alongside Michael Tilson Thomas’s fifty-year association with the London Symphony Orchestra.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Clare Presland,,Justina Gringyte and Rhian Lois [Photo © Alastair Muir]
22 May 2015

Carmen by ENO

Dystopic vision of Carmen, brought to life by vibrantly gripping performances

Carmen by ENO

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Clare Presland,,Justina Gringyte and Rhian Lois

Photos © Alastair Muir

 

Revivals can often bring productions into a different focus, and English National Opera’s current revival of Calixto Bieito’s production of Bizet’s Carmen (seen Wednesday 20 May 2015) had a new conductor, Sir Richard Armstrong, and new leads, Justina Gringyte as Carmen and Eric Cutler as Don Jose. Eric Cutler was making his ENO debut with Justina Gringyte making her role debut.

They were supported by a strong cast, with Leigh Melrose as Escamillo, Eleanor Dennis as Micaela, Graeme Danby as Zuniga, George Humphreys as Morales, Rhian Lois as Frasquita, Clare Presland as Mercedes, Geoffrey Dolton as Dancairo, Alun Rhys-Jenkins as Remendado and Toussaint Meghie as Lilas Pastia. Calixto Bieito’s production, designed by Alfons Flores (sets, realised by Kieron Docherty), and Merce Paloma (costumes), revived by Joan Anton Rechi and sung in Christopher Cowell’s English translation, is much travelled and originally dates from 1999. It sets the piece in the 1970’s in the dying days of Franco’s regime in a place which is recognisably Spain but is a grim marginal border region and lacking in the folkloric glamour we associate with the work. It is a bleak, dystopic vision which worked because of the grippingly vibrant performances which complemented the music.

12946.pngEleanor Dennis and Eric Cutler

Despite including a fine article by Hugh Macdonald, the programme book seemed entirely silent on the subject of the edition of the score being used. We seemed to have the standard Opera Comique version, though the spoken dialogue was cut to the bone, but it was there (I still have unhappy memories of the Sally Potter production’s complete excision of dialogue). Dialogue and its use, including melodrama, is an important factor in the work’s design.

This was a world of smugglers living in cars, bored soldiers being cruelly punished, fights, violence and sex for money. No-one was admirable, Carmen (Justina Gringyte) is clearly on the make using sex as a tool to work her way up, you were never sure when she was playing or when she was real. Don Jose (Eric Cutler) was a strong, silent giant who struggled with anger issues and was clearly not the brightest penny. Escamillo (Leigh Melrose) was more a two-bit spiv than a real super-star and very much just a local hero. It was shocking in its way, but the miraculous thing was that Calixto Bieito staged Bizet’s music just as it is. Unlike some productions, he did not falsify music or plot, he found what he wanted in Bizet’s score and made sense of the numerous little awkward moments which other directors have to finesse. It worked, because Bizet’s music became partly the character’s inner life, the vibrant colourful Spain which was more a concept than reality.

We opened with Lilas Pastia (Toussaint Meghie) in a dodgy white suit doing a cheap magic trick. He was clearly something of a pimp,and Bieito made the role both non-speaking and ubiquitous. Lilas Pastia’s bar was simply a case of drink by an open topped car for the use of the clients of his girls, Frasquita (Rhian Lois), Mercedes (Clare Presland) and Carmen. He cropped up at various times in curious places, a man with fingers in pies. Each act started with a visual gesture, Act 2 had Mercedes daughter all alone, dancing for her doll (she later pimped for her mother). Act 3, with its huge cut out bull advert, had a naked young man pretending to be a bull fighter. We never worked out if he was a real one or just pretend. Act 4 opened with Lilas Pastia organising the soldiers to dismantle the bull, ending up with him mock bull-fighting with the soldiers carrying the head of the bull.

Things got off to a good start with a tightly vibrant performance of the overture from Richard Armstrong and the orchestra. Throughout he kept the music on a tight rein, giving the melodies time but not allowing things to luxuriate too much or get flabby. This seemed to inculcate a similarly vibrant and vital performance from his singers. Singing her first Carmen, Justina Gringyte had a dark-toned mezzo-soprano voice with a vibrant, tight vibrato which she used to fine effect, and an admirably flexible top. This wasn’t a relaxed, sultry Carmen, but one who was uptight, on edge but still very sexy. Tall and slim, Justina Gringyte used her sex appeal as a weapon. The famous numbers were finely sung but not done in parentheses, they were woven into the dramatic fabric. Her English was communicative and characterful, with her accent giving her the necessary hint of otherness which Carmen needs, rather than getting in the way.

Eric Cutler was certainly a great find. He is moving into more dramatic territory (with Fidelio and Lohengrin coming up) and his Don Jose had a rugged, rough-hewn quality to it but with a vitality too. This matched the character, a tongue-tied bloke who exploded when he could not communicate. The flower song was nicely expressive and eloquent, and Eric Cutler knows how to shade off his voice at the top when needed. He and Justina Gringyte really struck sparks off each other. It helped that he is tall and well built (taller than Justina Gringyte in heels, and she is not small).

The role of Escamillo is all swagger and very little else, and here Leigh Melrose swaggered beautifully. His duet/duel with Eric Cutler’s Don Jose in Act 3 was full of wonderful posturing and thrilling music. Like most Escamillos, Leigh Melrose did not really have the bottom notes for the toreador’s song though he did well (you do wonder what type of voice the first Escamillo had). Leigh Melrose’s toreador’s costume in Act 4 did not really flatter him, but it is a look that few baritones could bring off.

12948.pngJustina Gringyte and Eric Cutler

Where, I think the production slipped was in the depiction of Micaela as a sassy but out of her depth Essex-girl type. Eleanor Dennis was convincing in her portrayal and made a touching Micaela who showed a vulnerability in the musical items. But the portrayal missed out on Micaela’s touching directness, and replaced it with a knowingness. Her duet with Eric Cutler’s Don Jose was finely done, with moments of humour, but without quite touching the heart the way it sometimes can. But Eleanor Dennis rose to fine heights in Micaela’s Act 3 solo.

The other singers were all vivid characters in the drama with their music part and parcel (with dialogue cut to a minimum we heard far less from some than is usual). Frasquita and Mercedes (Rhian Lois and Clare Presland) made two rather desperate tarts but their trio in Act 3 with Carmen was thrilling, the two girls attitudes contrasting aptly with that of Carmen, and with Justina Gringyte really making this count in her dark portrayal of Carmen. Graeme Danby made a gloriously sleazy Zuniga, with George Humphreys as a handsome moral-less Morales. Both Geoffrey Dolton and Alun Rhys-Jenkins looked their parts as Remendado and Dancairo, but he heard little from them except their musical characterful contributions.

The final act was brilliantly and economically staged. At the opening Lilas Pastia drew a huge circle on the ground, suggestive of the bull ring. For the big crowd scene, the chorus surged forward to the edge of the stage and we experienced the parade via the music and in the reflection of their intense reactions, In the final moments Eric Cutler and Justina Gringyte were alone, at the centre of the circle, for a powerful and evocative ending full of resonances.

The large chorus was on thrilling form with strong and disciplined singing throughout and some stunning moments, It wasn’t just the big crowd scenes which counted, but every little moment and they were firmly behind Richard Armstrong’s tight yet vibrant account of the score. They were joined by a large group of actors with many shirtless moments (and more), the men were generous with their physical charms. Under Richard Armstrong, the orchestra was in sterling form, giving a vital yet disciplined account of the score without a flabby moment.

I enjoyed Christopher Cowell’s imaginative yet direct translation. Cowell had found neat solutions to the stress problems caused by translating from French,and his language was demotically direct yet poetic. Diction was admirable throughout, this was one of those evenings when we hardly needed the subtitles.

Ultimately this was Richard Armstrong, Justina Gringyte and Eric Cutler’s evening, and between them they gave us some thrilling moments, in an evening of gripping drama.

Robert Hugill


Cast and production information:

Carmen: Justina Gringyte, Don Jose: Eric Cutler, Escamillo: Leigh Melrose, Micaela: Eleanor Dennis, Frasquita: Rhian Lois, Mercedes: Clare Presland, Dancairo: Geoffrey Dolton, Remendado: Alun Rhys-Jenkins, Lilas Pastia: Toussaint Mehie. Director: Calixto Bieito, Conductor: Sir Richard Armstrong, Revival director: Joan Anton Rechi, Set designer: Alfons Flores, Sets realised by: Kieron Docherty, Costume design: Merce Paloma, Lighting: Bruno Poet, Lighting revived by: Martin Doone. English National Opera at the London Coliseum, 20 May 2015.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):