“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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Fallen Women: La Traviata by the Welsh National Opera

La Traviata WNO

As part of the Welsh National Opera’s current season themed around the idea of “Fallen Women”, a series of three shows are being performed this week at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Last night, the season began with Giuseppe Verdi’s famous La Traviata, directed by David McVicar and Sarah Crisp, which will be performed again this Saturday (8th March).

tissot convalescentLike a series of sumptuous Victorian paintings brought startlingly to life, the design of the show was utterly magnificent throughout. From the bustling, brightly coloured party scenes that opened the show’s first and second acts, to the more intimate moments we spend in the company of the frail and saintly Violetta once she is “reformed”, designer Tanya McCallin has realised the period in painstaking detail by mirroring the art and culture of the time. Some of the clearest references are reprinted in the programme, such as James Tissot’s The Convalescent, which provides a near-perfect model for Violetta’s angelic, flowing, white dressing gown in Act Two, which stands in sharp contrast with the black velvet and red taffeta she favours while in Paris. Though not as directly referenced, I was particularly reminded of the classic “fallen women” and rich colours and textures found in Pre-Raphaelite works.

One problem did arise as a result of the production’s elaborate set design: a scene change in the middle of Act 2 saw the curtain come down and the music stop for several minutes, leaving the audience a little restless and confused as to whether the second interval had already started. It was worth the wait for what followed, but I wondered whether the changeover might have been better handled with some sort of explanation to the audience in advance, to stop people from getting up and trying to leave. That said, I’m not familiar enough with opera to know whether or not this is usual.

263px-Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Proserpine_-_Google_Art_ProjectJi-Min Park carried the audience away completely with his energy, ardour and youthful naiveté as our heroine’s hapless lover Alfredo. Alfredo’s interfering father, Giorgio, is also brilliantly portrayed by Alan Opie, whose powerful presence commands full attention every time he steps onto the stage. His gravitas offsets his son’s foolishness and triviality, yet he is not without his comic moments: he flounders hopelessly when Violetta attempts to “embrace [him] like a daughter”. Gaudily made-up as life and soul of the party Flora, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’s knowing humour is surpassed only by that of Act Two’s ingenious gypsy troupe, whose saucy performance offers welcome light relief from the overarching tragic melodrama. Credit here must also go to Andrew George and Colm Seery for their excellent choreography: the gypsy’s dances are timed to perfection. Sian Meinir lends an edge of tough, practical realism to Violetta’s maid Annina, revealing their debts and the sale of her mistress’s possessions to Alfredo in a moment of obvious frustration with his dreamy guilelessness when it crosses the line into downright stupidity. Naturally, though, Violetta herself must be the star of this show, and Linda Richardson only gets better as things develop. Perhaps her most beautiful singing is alongside Alan Opie’s when Giorgio arrives in Act Two, but it’s after this that the audience really begins feel her anguish over the “great sacrifice” he asks of her as the show builds up towards its tear-jerking ending.

It’s testament to their skills that however infuriating modern viewers might find this story, the performers still manage to sweep us all up along with them, stirring emotional responses that we hardly expect and making us really care about the characters almost in spite of ourselves. Still, as the programme’s fascinating articles by an impressive array of novelists, playwrights and feminist essayists suggests, the WNO does not wish for us to ignore our more rational reactions to La Traviata‘s problematic plot. As David Pountney, the WNO’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director, writes in his introduction:

“[Fallen women] is…. a controversial theme, and I hope that bringing these three works together will provoke you to question the assumptions that lie behind them – perhaps even make some of you angry – an entirely healthy reaction to important cultural ideas.”

It cannot be by accident, then, that the voices of this production’s female characters are allowed to speak loudest, even if we are not left entirely convinced by Violetta’s self-sacrifice or, indeed, by her attraction to Alfredo, who is undoubtedly punching above his weight in both wisdom and capacity for compassion. Unlike our Victorian predecessors, force-fed a phobia of “fallen” females, we cannot readily accept Violetta’s miserable death as only due punishment for her “sins” – rather, we are left wondering how the more selfish and silly men we blame for her demise can possibly atone for theirs. If their changeability and inconstancy (interestingly stereotypically “feminine” qualities) so far are anything to judge by, it’s a struggle to believe that the guilt they feel when we leave them will really plague them for long enough to be considered sufficient penance.

What’s important, then, is that though Violetta is effectively silenced – her spirit being the first to fly the stage – the curtain comes down before those that survive her can say or do anything to appropriate or moralise her suffering. When it goes back up again, it’s her and her alone we see at first, not only allowing Richardson to take well-deserved credit for her performance, but also ensuring that Violetta retains her own integrity.

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With its Violetta left exhausted, sweating and sickly (rather than prettily pale and waiflike in line with the bizarre, deathly standards of beauty that proliferated in the 19th century) and still battling on to the end, the WNO ensures that the tragic courtesan character transcends her role of simply “feeding and satisfying” male fantasy, instead confronting us with the reality of her existence (Violetta is, after all, based on a real woman, Marie Duplessis): that, in David Pountney’s words “is where the poignancy comes in”.

The Welsh National Opera’s La Traviata is showing again at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 8th March. Full tour dates can be found here. It is followed at the Hippodrome by Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut this evening and Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude tomorrow night. Keep an eye on Tal Fox’s blog, If You Could See This Now, for a review of Boulevard Solitude, and if you are aged 16-23 and using the Hippodrome’s First Night scheme to get tickets for the opera, don’t forget to let us know here.