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Reviews

03 Mar 2020

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Bizet’s Carmen: WNO in Cardiff

A review by David Truslove

Above: Giorgio Caoduro (Escamillo), Julia Mintzer (Carmen) and WNO Ensemble

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

Of course, Bizet’­s brightly lit score has all the atmosphere, vibrant colours and exotica of the Spain he never visited, and the strength of its text means it can survive even the most bizarre transpositions. This production certainly brings a new approach and rather than just project Carmen as a sexual predator, she’s cast as a working-class girl, one whose poverty brings her close to an underclass of uneducated, virtually lawless drug pedlars and gunrunners.

It’s this sense of deprivation and unruliness that influences both Davies and designer Leslie Travers whose set comprises a three-tiered curve of slummy apartments facing an unfinished courtyard with surrounding steel fencing. Grim as it is, the whole bears kinship with a favela, cleverly conveying a barracks (with family accommodation - even a brothel), cigarette factory or more probably a drug-smuggling plant, Lillas Pastia’s mountain tavern and a suggestion of a bullring. Much of the success of this is achieved through Gabriel Dalton’s costumes and Oliver Fenwick’s subtle lighting.

Haegee Lee Frasquita Julia Mintzer Carmen Angela Simkin Mercédès Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith .jpg Haegee Lee (Frasquita), Julia Mintzer (Carmen) and Angela Simkin (Mercédès). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

So far so good in its transposition from 19th-century Seville to a contemporary, non-specific location in Brazil. And so far, so good too, in its limited way, to focus on Carmen as a product of her environment. But Bizet’s masterpiece not only illuminates those at the bottom of the heap and the tensions between free will and restriction (consider all the steel fences), but charts the destructive power of obsession, the psychological plunge of Don José from decent lad to addictive, jealous and ultimately rejected lover.

Directorial novelty for one of the most performed operas in the repertoire is welcome, in fact it’s virtually a necessity. But so is a mezzo who can offer an essential mix of physical allure and danger. Despite striking looks and a vivid stage presence, Julia Mintzer never quite raised the emotional temperature; her devil-may-care wantonness was lukewarm and her somewhat plummy ‘Habanera’ made little impact. She possesses an attractive voice, but gypsy grit and growl is largely absent, and when the temptress in her finally emerges in the ‘Seguidilla’ her vocal projection is limited. It was not until we reached Act Two’s tavern duet, ‘Je vais danser’, that a light and flexible voice charmed the ear.

Giorgio Caoduro Escamillo Peter Auty Don Jose .jpgGiorgio Caoduro (Escamillo) and Peter Auty (Don José). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

A well-cast Giorgio Caoduro as Escamillo brought smouldering looks and plenty of swagger. His rich, gnarly baritone - pushing a little too hard in the second act showpiece - found more even tone in his confrontational duet with Don José, sung with impressive ease by the lyric tenor Peter Auty. His was a portrayal of gathering intensity, delivering an impassioned ‘Flower Song’, and by Act Four his implicit doom was a mixture of rage and hopelessness. Chemistry between Auty and Elin Pritchard as the jilted Micaëla made clear shortcomings elsewhere. Her wide-eyed innocence was matched by a voice of homespun simplicity; operatic heft traded for sweetly calibrated lyricism.

Elin Pritchard Miceala.jpgElin Pritchard (Micaëla). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Prominent among the remaining cast are the bright, complementary voices of Hagen Lee and Angela Simkin as Frasquita and Mercédès faring well in the fortune-telling sequence, while John Savournin and Ross Ramgobin make their mark early on as Zuniga and Moralès. There’s robust singing from the Chorus and notably from some superbly trained school children whose jewel-like voices and conspicuous enthusiasm leaves a vivid impression. In the pit Harry Ogg drove through the score with a zeal that generated some startlingly fast tempos - a steeple chase of an overture and a rushed Act 3 prelude will hopefully gain some poise in time - but the orchestra responded with suitably clean, zesty playing. If you don’t mind the distracting dance episodes and the sludgy colours, this Carmen is worth seeing and in time its personal dramas will burn more fiercely.

David Truslove

Carmen - Julia Mintzer, Don José - Peter Auty, Escamillo - Giorgio Caoduro, Micaëla - Elin Pritchard, Zuniga - John Savournin, Moralès - Ross Ramgobin, Frasquita - Hagen Lee, Mercédès - Angela Simkin, Dancaïro - Howard Kirk, Remendado - Joe Roche, Director - Jo Davies, Conductor - Harry Ogg, Revival director - Oliver Lamford, Set designer - Leslie Travers, Costume designer - Gabrielle Dalton, Lighting designer - Oliver Fenwick, Movement director - Denni Sayers.

Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff; Thursday 27th February 2020.

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