Thursday 20 November 2014

Opera Review: WNO's Carmen at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

In reviving its Caurier and Leiser version of Carmen, Welsh National Opera (WNO) has chosen a solid foundation for its autumn season. It may not have been an instant success at its première in 1875, but Bizet’s tale of the life and loves of a seductive and headstrong gypsy girl has since enjoyed an enduring popularity.
Solid Caroline Chaney’s revival may be, but not always scintillating. Alessandra Volpe takes the eponymous lead, arrested for fighting with another woman at the tobacco factory in Seville where she works. While she looks and moves convincingly as Carmen, initially Volpe’s mezzo in the Habanera is a little uneven. She does warm into the role, illustrating her indomitable will with some bull-like head-butting of her lover towards the end, but both she and her Don José, Peter Wedd, have a tendency to be overpowered by the orchestra.
What’s more alarming is the lack of chemistry between the two, which undermines such scenes as Carmen’s private dance with castanets at Lillas Pastia’s inn. Carmen’s allure is such that no man from the soldiers on guard to the bullfighter Escamillo is able to resist; in this production it’s often difficult to believe in the couple’s mutual attraction, or the overwhelming love which will compel Don José to desert the army and carry out his final act of vengeance.
Set against this, Jessica Muirhead really shines as Micaëla, the village girl bringing messages to Don José from his mother. Her soprano is crisp and full of pathos; in her early scenes she expresses all of Micaëla’s attraction for the soldier, combined with an embarrassment at his mother’s unsubtle matchmaking. Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo also has a pleasing tone, although he could do with a little more swagger at times, particularly when fighting his rival in love, Don José.
The WNO orchestra is superb throughout and James Southall conducts with great clarity and vigour. Although some of the set pieces, such as the build up to the bull-fight in the final act, feel less dramatic than they should, the chorus is consistently strong and rousing and the gang of young street children are delightfully urchin-like.
Against the grandeur of the Hippodrome, the pared back set consists of Goya-inspired backdrops and a scattering of wooden chairs and tables. With its soldiers and cigarette-girls costumed in an earth-coloured palette, it does feel like less of a lavish visual feast than other versions of Carmen, and indeed other WNO productions. What this dulled-down vision does do though, is contrast wonderfully with the greater colour and vibrancy of the finale. There may be many highs and lows in this revival, but it is still an absorbing production with plenty to enjoy.

Seen at Bristol Hippodrome on November 12th 2014. This production continues to tour; destinations and dates can be found here

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