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Reviews

08 Nov 2019

Virginie Verrez captivates in WNO's Carmen at the Birmingham Hippodrome

Jo Davies’ new production of Carmen for Welsh National Opera presents not the exotic Orientalism of nineteenth-century France, nor a tale of the racial ‘Other’, feared and fantasised in equal measure by those whose native land she has infiltrated.

Bizet: Carmen - Welsh National Opera at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Angela Simkin (Mercédès), Harriet Eyley (Frasquita) Virginie Verrez (Carmen)

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

Instead, Davies and designer Leslie Travers, in their attempt to examine the sexual politics of Carmen through a contemporary lens, transfer the action of the opera to the ‘world of Brazilian favelas and the tight community within’. They cite the Brazilian government’s implementation, with the assistance of the army, of the favela eradication in the 1960s - and the poverty, violence and lawlessness that characterised the favelas - as evidence in support of their argument that this world fits ‘the economic and sexual politics of Carmen’ and is ‘a good home for Carmen’s wild Bohemian spirit’.

At least, that’s what Davies tells us in a programme booklet article which I did not read until after the performance. Looking at Travers’ grey, gritty set - a curving edifice that served, pretty effectively, as run-down tenement block, soldiers’ barracks, Lillas Pastia’s tavern in the shadow of the ramparts, mountain-side smugglers’ den, and bull-ring arena - I had no sense of the ‘visual flavours of Latin America’ that Travers and costume designer Gabrielle Dalton are reported to have researched.

Ross Ramgobin Anita Watson.jpg Ross Ramgobin (Moralès), Anita Watson (Micaëla). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Not that it mattered. The opening moments of the production may not have dazzled our eyes with the oranges and golds, gleaming in the bright white light, of a square in Seville, but the grimy compound enclosed by metal grilles, through which the smirking soldiers leered at passing young girls, and the towering tenements strewn with sagging washing-lines, made for a persuasive, if indeterminate, locale. As the grilles were swivelled when the working girls finished their shift at the cigarette factory, we were by turn both outsiders and insiders, a fitting metaphor for the opera’s tensions and divisions.

WNO Carmen.jpgPhoto credit: Bill Cooper.

There was, however, little sense of racial conflict. This Carmen was no foreigner on Spanish soil, a traveller from lands flung far and wide, who challenges a society that cannot accept the outsider for fear of denying itself. Her wildness was not a sort of gypsy madness, rather a wilfulness born of frustration and a desire for freedom. Fair enough. But, there was similarly no sense of the class conflicts that oppress Carmen (reflecting the contemporary tensions between the middle-class and the large, malleable labour force upon which the bourgeoisie depended in Bizet’s France), despite Davies’ suggestion that Carmen is a sort of nineteenth-century Jade Goody, cut from a similar working-class cloth.

If you excise race and class, you’re left with gender and nineteenth-century cultural ambivalences about women and female sexuality. Indeed, Davies’ principal aims seems to have been to take a feminist stance and pose some #MeToo questions in the context of contemporary sexual politics. But, while she asks, ‘whether Bizet’s ending would be the same, or any different were he writing today?’, Davies’ production doesn’t actually venture very far in exploring this question. Some of the spoken dialogue may have been revised, but since it’s in French this will pass most of the audience by, unless they glance up at surtitles which are out-of-kilter with the stage action. Instead, what we have is a conventional telling of an ‘old’ tale: the silencing of a sexually confident woman by a society afraid of her liberated spirit.

Dimitri Pittas Virginie Verrez.jpgDimitri Pittas (Don José), Virginie Verrez (Carmen). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Fortunately, Davies has an excellent cast to tell this tale. French mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez’ Carmen really does charm and entrance when she sings, even if her actions and behaviour are often more aggressive than provocative. Carmen clicks, not castanets, but empty shot glasses; she douses a soldier in liquor and taunts him with a lighted match, laughing viciously. Charming. Though more likely to be wielding a Kalashnikov than castanets, Verrez still seduced: she has a lovely silvery, silky mezzo which can shine brightly or sink into darker hues, and she moves between the two with confidence and expressive clarity. Her Habañera fully exploited the teasing slides of Bizet’s chromaticism but it’s a pity that Davies doesn’t really acknowledge that this is both song and dance: the physicality of the song expressed through its vamping rhythm and extravagant leaps and descents of register was largely absent. During the ‘Seguidilla’, Carmen remained squarely seated on the ground, her hands tightly bound, though Verrez was able to communicate the physical slipperiness implied with her voice. At Lillas Pastia’s tavern, Carmen offers to dance for José alone, but then spends most of the song lounging on an ugly plastic chair; two dancers are called upon to express the implied physical dynamics and impulses.

Such numbers are also ‘performances’: we are not sure, when she sings these ‘popular songs’ whether Carmen is expressing herself or adopting a theatrical persona. Here, Carmen’s songs were not placed ‘in the spotlight’ in this way; even the impact of her first entrance, which is such a disruptive dramatic force, was diminished as she meandered through the crowd of girls and soldiers. Despite this, Verrez held our attention and enchanted our ears throughout; tattooed and pony-tailed, sporting first dull dungarees and trainers, later a backless floral frock accessorised with red handbag and stilettos, she might have become the generic ‘Essex girl’ with whom Davies draws parallels. That she did not speaks much for Verrez’ technical and expressive assurance.

Phillip Rhodes Dimitri Pittas.jpgPhillip Rhodes (Escamillo), Dimitri Pittas (Don José). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Dimitri Pittas’ José is more despondent sulk than bewildered naïf, but Pittas has the range and power for the part. The mummy’s-boy cadet was fittingly melancholy and troubled, and, by Act 4, credibly deranged by love and impotence as he prowled within the crowd outside the bull-ring arena. Initially, I thought I detected an edgy grain to Pittas’ tenor, when it was pushed high or loud, and the ‘Flower Song’ didn’t really intoxicate with its melodic flights of fancy; but, his tenor increasingly found a finer, warmer focus and, by the climactic duet, rang with dramatic intensity.

Anita Watson was a surprising forthright Micaëla, and it worked: this Micaëla was much more than a one-dimensional ‘good girl’ - the foil to Carmen, introduced into the opera to satisfy Bizet’s bourgeois audience. She was not intimidated by the groping eyes of the soldiers in Act 1, making her utterances more integrated into the dramatic tension than is sometimes the case. And, during her Act 3 air, time seemed to stand still: Watson conveyed Micaëla’s quiet heroism most impressively. This was a moment of serenity amid the prevailing moral chaos. Phillip Rhodes’ Escamillo wore the toreador’s leather trousers and blouson with style and displayed the sort of vocal and physical appeal that made Carmen’s attraction persuasive - though, again, he had to fight his way to centre-stage through the revellers at Lillas Pastia’s.

Harriet Eyley Angela Simkin.jpgHarriet Eyley (Frasquita), Angela Simkin (Mercédès). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The secondary roles were strongly characterised and sung, which served to create an impression of a ‘real’ community. Frasquita (Harriet Eyley) and Mercédès (Angela Simkin) were fully involved in the drama, sang with vibrancy, and were also clearly distinguished characters. The reading of the cards was a striking moment, no mere divertissement for smugglers and gypsies with time on their hands. Both her companions’ care for Carmen, and the veracity of the danger embracing her, were powerfully communicated. “Death, I saw it, him first, me next, for both of us, death,” Carmen sings, darkly and slowly. It seemed to me that here, perhaps, was a way to answer the #MeToo questions Davies’ purports to pose: fated to die, she may still control when and where? Might not Carmen’s final declaration, “I know that you are going to kill me; but whether I live or die, no, no, I shall not give in to you!” and her command, “All right, stab me then, or let me pass!”, be dramatized as a choice? After all, she sings, “Free she was born and free she will die!”

Henry Waddington really grabbed one’s attention as Zuniga, while Ross Ramgobin’s Moralès was a strong dramatic presence in the opening Act. Benjamin Bevan (Dancaire), Joe Roche (Remendado) and Gregory A Smith (in the spoken role of Lillas Pastia) enlivened the bandit scenes. The children’s chorus were superb, raised on the tenement balconies, firing water-pistols at the marching soldiers, and the Chorus of WNO sang, and moved, persuasively. Tomáš Hanus drew some fire and spirit from the WNO Orchestra, balancing the exoticism with a warm Romantic glow.

This was a highly enjoyable evening. No ‘concept’ was needed - or, indeed, really evident: singers and musicians simply let Carmen’s songs ‘speak’ for themselves.

Claire Seymour

Carmen - Virginie Verrez, Don José - Dimitri Pittas, Micaëla - Anita Watson, Escamillo - Phillip Rhodes, Moralès - Ross Ramgobin, Zuniga - Henry Waddington, Frasquita - Harriet Eyley, Mercédès - Angela Simkin, Dancaire - Benjamin Bevan, Remendado - Joe Roche, Lillas Pastia - Gregory A Smith, Dancers (Carmine De Amicis, Josie Sinnadurai); Director - Jo Davies, Conductor - Tomáš Hanus, Set Designer - Leslie Travers, Costume Designer - Gabrielle Dalton, Movement Director - Denni Sayers, Assistant Choreographer/Dance Captain - Carmine De Amicis, Fight Director - Lisa Connell, Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera.

Birmingham Hippodrome; Tuesday 5th November 2019.

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