Sunday, 7 March 2010

Carmen - WMC 4th of March 2010


If there's one thing more daunting than putting on another performance of Carmen, it has to be writing about another performance of Carmen. Everything's been said, picked over and pulled apart to leave original thought a single mote in Miss Havisham's drawing room. But as I've begun to write, I'll carry on until the burnished dust settles, and I've laid my thoughts bare on WNO's recent effort at the Armadillo.

The production itself is an ochre dessert, concocted by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser that due to its sparse nature levers the duty of storytelling firmly towards the performers both on stage and off. Visually it's like dipping your eyes into a Rothko painting and entering a dream like state of existence, with the sole sparks of liberty belonging to the crowd in the final act. This solemn, sparse atmosphere inhabits the characters themselves. Carmen (Patricia Bardon) isn't a feisty senorita but rather a slightly worn, cynical creature who begrudgingly ensnares the luckless Don Jose (Gwyn Hughes Jones), her declarations of la liberté false and hollow as she appears incapable of imagining escaping from her fate. For his part Jose haplessly falls for Carmen, though his violent nature is revealed at telling moments within the opera so that his descent into a murderous rage appears a realistic outcome. Acting as the catalyst for the tragic denouement Escamillo (David Soar) is a more cunning, calculating creature than he is normally portrayed as being, which adds life to what can sometimes be a cardboard character.

Bardon, on this night, sang with a mild chest infection that was only audible on one or two occasions – otherwise her deep mezzo allowed for her world weary Carmen to be fully realised. The striking aspect of her portrayal was that with an array of showpiece arias at her fingertips she could have been forgiven to have indulged in some showboating, but she bought into the direction whole heartedly and gave a well drawn, yet instinctive performance.

Jones, a regular with WNO and no stranger to the role of Don Jose gave a beautifully sung performance that was both a strength and a weakness. As the supposedly naïve Jose his tenor was an ideal vehicle for expressing the character's emotions, but as the path to jealousy and finally murder was travelled I was hoping for a touch more danger to his performance, which never came. Whether this is down to the lyrical nature of his voice, or a desire to conserve his voice (this was the third performance of four spread over eight days) I'm not sure, but it was the only troubling fault I had with his vocal performance.

Soar, as Escamillo, was once again in great voice – an evenness of tone throughout his range allowed him to do justice to a tricky character introduction that has undone far more celebrated singers than himself. I'm in no way suggesting anything about him as a person but he played the role of a scheming Escamillo with assurance, especially his calculated thankfulness towards Carmen for being his saviour. I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him.

Of the remaining cast members the one who made the biggest impression, in the most irritating of roles in opera (to my mind at least), was Sarah-Jane Davies as Micaëla. Where others have shrieked, squawked and generally made a mess of this irritatingly bland character she gave a refreshingly controlled and clean performance. A member of ENO's Young Singers programme she has a promising future given time and measured advice.

Curiously, given that I'm not a conducting expert the star of the evening for me was Frederic Chaslin. I've seen a few Carmen's, in one way or another, but this was the first time I was consistently made aware of how wonderful the score is. Okay, I know that the arias can tend to pull the ear's attention given how memorable they are, but under Chaslin's watchful eye the orchestra of WNO had me bathing in a musical oasis from beginning to end and I began to hear things I hadn't heard before. Whether or not musicologist's will say he veered off course with the score as Bizet intended it to be played I have no idea, but it was an orchestral performance that demands praising. Such a shame then that during the curtain call the stage manager curtailed Chaslin's and the orchestra's ovation with a too hasty curtain drop.

As ever the chorus get an undeserving solitary sentence proclaiming their brilliance, but really – there is nothing else I can say about them.

For all the positives it would be unforgivable of me not to highlight an aspect of the production that does need working on and that's stage violence. The fight scenes are a touch laboured, and I would beg the revival director to allow Carmen to perish without screaming, as it was more Carry on than Carmen. But these are miniscule, mote sized quibbles that can be corrected with no trouble whatsoever.

Familiarity can breed contempt, but once in a while it can give birth to a surprising discovery, and thanks to the efforts of all involved this Carmen makes you realise that there is more than just the tunes to fall in love with. And next time stage manager – let Chaslin have his moment in the spotlight as he will have earned it.

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