“The Mother of All Musicals” – Carmen Performed by the Welsh National Opera

carmenIn 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.

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Der Ring des Nibelungen: Götterdämmerung by the Mariinsky Opera

Gotterdammerung © N.Razina (2) (1)The final part of Wagner’s epic masterpiece begins and ends with a group of three sisters, creating a kind of elegant symmetry both within the show itself and across the Ring Cycle as a whole – a satisfying circularity appropriate to its title and themes, that lends the story’s outcome a sense of inevitability.

At the start of the Mariinsky Opera’s Götterdämmerung, the three Norns – daughters of Erda and weavers of fate – appear on a relatively empty stage, with dimmed lighting coloured a warning red. Surrounding them, silent, dreadlocked dancers are arranged in a ring, passing the Norns’ rope around their circle to maintain a delicate status quo until the rope runs out, having broken on the rocks it was tied to. Themselves embodying the broken strands, the dancers separate, and as they exit, their loping gait and contorted poses create the image of fate itself trudging miserably and unwillingly onwards, powerless to prevent the catastrophe that humans, dwarfs and gods alike will bring upon themselves. It’s a powerful opening, setting a dark tone for the rest of the show.

Götterdämmerung features another excellent Siegfried/Brünnhilde pairing in Andreas Schager and Larisa Gogolevskaya. Some time having elapsed between the events of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, the characters that we meet at the start of the show have changed significantly in the interim. Stripped of her armour and dramatic hair and make-up, Brünnhilde immediately seems much meeker and more vulnerable than previously, and Gogolevskaya’s performance reflects this change: initially passive, contained and apparently content with domesticity, it’s difficult to equate this mortal woman with the powerful warrior and demi-goddess we encountered in Die Walküre. Siegfried, meanwhile, though as cheerful and energetic as ever, has lost a little of his callowness, having begun to absorb some of his lover’s wisdom. More important than any knowledge she might have imparted, however, is the fact that he has learned to respect another person.

Meanwhile, in the court of King Gunther, Mikhail Petrenko reappears as the king’s half-brother and closest adviser, Hagen. The son of the ring’s creator, Alberich, Hagen is bitter and twisted, fed on hate and spurred on by jealousy of his more noble, legitimate siblings. Another of Mariinsky’s genuine stars, Petrenko is perfect in the role, conveying the loathing and malice bubbling away beneath a thin exterior of calm and composure. His deep, sonorous voice has apparently designated him the “baddie” of the company – he previously portrayed both Hunding and Fafner in his dragon form – but despite some stand-out acting in the former role, this is the first of his three parts that really gives him space to show off his vocal talents. Mlada Khudoley also makes an excellent Gutrune, in great voice and giving a more nuanced acting performance than in her previous part as Sieglinde.

1Soon after arriving at Gunther’s hall, Siegfried is tricked by Hagen into forgetting all about his beloved, in order that he might marry Gutrune while Brünnhilde is herself claimed by Gunther. Upon his drinking a magic potion brewed by Hagen, all memory of Brünnhilde is washed away, and with it all her teachings: at this point, we see Siegfried revert back to his conceited former self, only this time, he comes off as considerably more dislikeable.

Back on Brünnhilde’s mountain, one of her former fellows risks Wotan’s anger by showing up to warn her sister of the grave danger the gods and the world as a whole are in. This Valkyrie, Waltraute, is played by Olga Savova, who brings the same powerful stage presence, stunning voice and emotional depth to this part that made her so compelling as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre.

Gunther’s court features some of the Cycle’s best set design, with grand pillars supporting a moveable platform that creates a sort of smaller, second stage, allowing action to take place on two levels and adding a sense of depth and scale to the show. This works particularly well when Hagen calls the army to prepare for Brünnhilde’s arrival, bellowing orders at the soldiers from high above them. The soldiers themselves are also excellent: this is the only part of the Ring Cycle to feature a chorus, and as a result, this scene is one of Götterdämmerung‘s most visually and musically striking moments. More gorgeous lighting creates the mood, with a sunset sky burning a bright, blood red in anticipation of the tragedy that will follow.

It’s upon Brünnhilde’s learning of her betrayal by Siegfried that Gogolevskaya really comes into her own acting-wise, balancing disbelief and confusion with horror, humiliation and fury. From this point on, we seem to see another version of Brünnhilde – no longer the mild, passive creature that appeared at the start of the show and allowed herself to be captured for Gunther, but the steely demi-goddess who once collected dying heroes from battlefields. Ultimately Götterdämmerung is Brünnhilde’s story, and Gogolevskaya rises to the emotional challenges of the end of the show: all eyes are upon her as the character makes her final, fatal decision.

It’s a fantastic end to truly incredible series of shows, and an experience I feel very privileged to have had. Next week, I’ll be attending two more operas at the Hippodrome – Carmen and Moses in Egypt – this time performed by the Welsh National Opera. They’ve definitely got a tough act to follow!

Header image by N. Razina. Second photograph by Alexander Shapunov.