In words that pretty well summed up my own first impressions of Bizet’s Carmen, WNO Artistic Director David Pountney describes the opera as both “the first ever kitchen-sink drama” and “the mother of all musicals”. Widely criticised around the time of its first performance, it’s a ground-breaking piece that has since gone on to become one of the most popular and enduring operas of all time, and it’s not hard to see why. Fusing comedy and tragedy, lively characters and instantly recognisable tunes, the show’s appeal, much like that of its hot-headed heroine, is irresistible.
Carmen’s character is key to both our continued fascination with the opera and the stir it originally caused. Though the story takes the form of a tragedy in which our anti-heroine is ultimately killed, it’s difficult not to come away feeling that, in spite of her death, she has still managed to win the battle against those who would control and contain her. Unlike the agonisingly remorseful martyrs in sentimental operas like La Traviata, Carmen never relinquishes her freedom, unheeding of Don José’s damning accusations and refusing to be defined or domesticated by the rigid, oppressive patriarchy that he embodies. And, crucially, we love her for it. While for the male characters in the story, Carmen my be a puzzle that can eventually only be resolved through annihilation, for the audience, she is a free-thinking human being, mischievous, criminal and even cruel, perhaps, but still a clever and compelling advocate of individual liberty. She chooses death, in full knowledge that it is her only available alternative to submission.
The role of the saintly soprano in Carmen instead belongs to Micaëla, whose frightened reaction to the soldiers’ leering couldn’t be further from Carmen’s own. Passionate and righteous to an extent that seems foolish and childish, Micaëla is finally sidelined and forgotten along with the dying mother she speaks for. In contrast to Carmen, Micaëla is virtually denied a voice, becoming little more than the on-stage representative for Don José’s mother, who is never seen but whose presence and influence over her son is always felt. Don José is not so much trapped in a love triangle between two young women he seeks to dominate, then, as caught in a tug-of-war between the two “mysterious” women who shape the course of his life, leaving him embittered and emasculated.
Carmen herself is played compellingly by the stunning Alessandra Volpe, exceedingly sensual and seductive, even during the first act when she remains seated for long scenes. Jessica Muirhead makes a magnificent Micaëla, and Don José, Escamillo and Zuniga are well played by Peter Wedd, Simon Thorpe and Aidan Smith. The most lively and entertaining performances, however, come from Amy Freston, Emma Carrington, Cárthaigh Quill and Julian Boyce as gypsy smuggler team Frasquita, Mercédès, Remendado and Le Dancaïre.
After earlier opera experiences this month, it’s clear that the WNO place a great deal of emphasis on the acting in their shows, rather than viewing this as something secondary to the music. This is not only true of the stars, but even of the chorus which, in Carmen, includes a large group of children, all of whom do a great job. Big, ensemble scenes like the emergence of the women from the cigarette factory and the bullfight in Seville are beautifully set and directed and brilliantly performed, the women hilariously extolling the beauty of their cigarette smoke and the Seville crowd cheering Escamillo with an exuberant energy and some genuinely funny slow-mo sequences.
All this is not to say that the music itself suffers, however. On the contrary: the orchestra are phenomenal, with one of the most enthusiastic and energetic young conductors you’ll ever see in James Southall. The chorus are also in great voice, and Muirhead’s solos in particular are breathtaking. Volpe, too, has a deliciously rich, sultry voice ideally suited to her character. The quality of diction also deserves a mention. Though partly a virtue of the music itself, it was very easy to hear and understand the words, often without the surtitles, which were (happily) used relatively sparingly in this production.
For all its tragic ending, the overriding impression Carmen leaves is one of great good fun, rousing melodies and humour. Coming to it for the first time, it was a welcome surprise to discover that its comedy is as essential to the storytelling its more emotive, dramatic moments, as well as to see how clearly it serves as a forerunner for modern musicals. Exciting and accessible, Carmen would make an ideal introduction to the form for those who have never seen opera, and is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome again this evening. Click here for more information and to book.