Presented by Welsh National Opera (WNO)
Music: Georges Bizet; Libretto: Henri Meilac; (1875)
From a story by Prosper Merrimee
Empire Theatre Liverpool
7th November 2014

Reviewed by Joe Coventry

Empire Of The Sensual

Carmen is one of the world's most loved Operas, so when WNO brought it back to Liverpool for another outing it was in the knowledge that a full house was assured.

It's a story of passion, lust, jealousy and freedom to choose the path of destiny, set in provincial Seville around 1830. Groundbreaking in its day Carmen premiered at the Paris Theatre National de L'Opera-Comique in four acts, to less than rapturous reviews. It's subject matter the realistic portrayal of lesser mortals: lowly soldiers, dealers in contraband and gypsy working- class female factory fodder. Hardly the stuff traditionally performed on stage in earlier refined society productions, this opera was pivotal in breaking the mould. That was the critical view then, so what's changed now. . . ?

An emotionally charged visceral red stage curtain above the baton of Eric Neilsen, sets the scene: the themes of the action are spelled out; the noisy corrida (bullring) blast, matador Escamillo's entry tune and the dark fate laced refrain that is Carmen's.

The set is a surprise. It's bare except for some chairs in acts one and two, a brazier in act three and an open door cut out the back wall in act four.. The drama, is in the colour of the three walls; dirty brown before the interval, bruised black with a red sliver suggestive of a mountain pass dawn after it, and the lowered curtain for the denouement.

But it is not all doom and gloom thanks to some brilliant lighting effects from Christopher Foley; exuberant, to match the music in the corrida crowd scene, dimly subdued in the smugglers marching song.

Soldiers are going through the motions across the road from the tobacco factory where gypsy Carmen works. Sung by Allesandro Volpe (mezzo-soprano), she catches the eye of the soldiers when the women come out for a smoke. Lieutenant Zuniga (bass) makes a play for her but she favours Don Jose, (Peter Wedd, tenor) by throwing a flower to him.

Revival director Caroline Chaney has had to resort to electronic cigarettes as the girls sing to let off steam; much better than at Sydney Opera House recently where political correctness 'gone mad' enforced cancellation of the work.

Jose is intended for nice girl Michaela (Jessica Muirhead, soprano) who turns up with a letter from his dying mother. A commotion in the factory sees Carmen arrested for assault. Under guard of Jose she seduces him to let her go and the tragedy begins to unfold.

There is a lot of dialogue between the set pieces which adds to the magic of the singing. Carmen's gypsy mates Frasquita and Mercedes(sopranos), set more than the guitar strings they are singing about twanging, before they join in with a couple of shady smugglers in a fine quintet in Lillas Pastia's tavern.

Jose fouls up again and has to join the illicit gang, but by now Carmen has cooled on him and turned her affections to the triumphant Escamillo (Kostas Smoriginas, baritone), but the cards will have a final say. Jose's heartfelt solo plea leaves her unmoved, and as the matador's theme rings out it is overtaken by a darker strain, as what has been prophesised comes to fruition.

The leads were excellent, but all the cast, including the kids, deserved the applause at the end; not to forget the orchestra, whose conductor took the credits for them.

The costumes of Agostino Cavalca were authentic enough of the period; the prim and proper blue of a respectable lady, the blousy tops and flouncy skirts of the workhouse, Toreadorial tasselled cape splendour and dour army rig out.

At three hours long, with one interval, it never flagged, and a rewarding night appeared to be had by all from this production which offered something for both male and female sensibilities alike.

So what has changed ? With the tunes reverberating in their heads as they left, this audience certainly knew. Quite simply this is opera for the masses and not just the elite.

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