A production that highlights the complex and multi-faceted nature of the supposed femme fatale.
In an article in the programme, Dr Cécile Kovacshazy suggests that “Carmen is presented as an ambivalent character” but that “ambivalence is also found in her tragic dimension, oscillating between destiny, a fate from which she cannot escape, and the idea that she would have her share of responsibility”. Cecilia Stinton’s new production for Opera Holland Park certainly allows for both an innovative and thorough exploration of the character who cannot simply be seen as one thing. Although much of its success can be attributed to the strengths of the performers in offering such multi-faceted portrayals of all of the characters, the directorial decisions certainly help them to bring out the complex nature of each.
The sets are designed by takis, who uses the same series of high white walls that he presented in OHP’s current production of Eugene Onegin. Once again, these can be pushed into a variety of formations to convey different spaces, but while in Tchaikovsky’s opera the walls’ arches contained heavy doors, here they reveal gates. This hands the resulting structures quite a different feel, for while doors can shut people out, as society shuns Onegin, gates are more associated with prisons, highlighting Carmen’s fear of being caged. With the lights, courtesy of Johanne Jensen, falling on these structures, one gains a keen sense of them standing in a sun-baked Seville, while their placement at the start marks one corner of the stage out as the interior of the cigarette factory within which the women can be seen working, and from which they emerge.
The first time that Carmen appears the men are not even sure who she is, initially mistaking her for two other factory workers who go on to play Mercédès (Ellie Edmonds) and Frasquita (Natasha Agarwal). In some ways, this undermines the idea of how her charisma automatically makes her stand out, but it does highlight how a myth surrounds her and just how quickly she can capture men as they move from not recognising her to being drawn to her in seconds. Kezia Bienek’s portrayal is excellent as, with her engaging mezzo-soprano that is as alluring as it is secure, she laces the central image of an icy cold seductress, who knows she does not actually have to try in order to ensnare men, with so many other emotions. One can see how she is equally impressed and amused by Escamillo in ‘Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre’, and also how she displays just a little guilt as well as some signs of being moved by Don José as he sings ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’. The ending is particularly illuminating because, rather than simply showing that Carmen favours death to losing her freedom, it suggests that, while that is true, she does not necessarily think she will have to forfeit her life. As she tells Don José either to kill her or let her walk away, it seems she believes she has enough power over him to persuade him to opt for the latter.
“The first time that Carmen appears the men are not even sure who she is…”
Oliver Johnston is a splendid Don José whose expansive tenor sees him hit some impressive heights, and who takes the notion of the obsessive ‘suitor’ to another level. It is interesting, however, that when he confronts Zuniga (Jacob Phillips) normally he attacks him (by drawing his sword) before the gypsies and smugglers intervene to stop him going any further. Here, however, he makes no such decisive gesture so it feels more as if the others are actually rescuing him from an impending defeat by the officer. Other interesting points include Zuniga himself being the guard who everyone has to smuggle their goods past in Act III. He is asleep for most of the time, but every now and then takes a walk only to miss seeing the people who are hiding just inches away. Of course, it is supposed to be dark, but one also wonders if Zuniga has a vested interest in seeing nothing, whether it is because he is corrupt himself or because his memories of what happened to him before make him feel it would be better to keep his head down now.
Thomas Mole is exhilarating as Escamillo, as he combines a notably firm and assertive baritone with the right level of swagger, while Alison Langer is also captivating as Micaëla. As she sings ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ beautifully and alone at the front of the stage her expressions reveal the character’s tenderness and loving nature on the one hand, but also the courage that she must possess in order to enter a smugglers’ den to rescue Don José.
Choreographer Isabel Baquero ensures there is also a great liveliness to the proceedings with all of the women’s chorus dancing during ‘Les tringles des sistres tintaient’, and one member playing the tambourine with a level of prowess that would be expected from a percussionist within the orchestra itself. Natasha Agarwal as Frasquita, in particular, displays some highly skilled dancing, but the evening is at its most exciting in ‘Les voici! Voici la quadrille!’ at the beginning of Act IV. This also involves the outstanding Children’s Chorus, arranged through Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, and with people filling the aisles and even handing audience members flyers advertising ‘Escamillo: Toréro de Grenade’ at the ‘Feria de Séville, Juin 2022’ one feels right at the centre of this exuberant occasion. The 34 strong City of London Sinfonia, which plays a new orchestral reduction by the evening’s conductor Lee Reynolds, delivers an always pleasing and frequently thrilling sound with the result that this Carmen is just as visceral as it is undoubtedly thoughtful.
• The performance on 12 June is a Discovery Matinee and Audio described and Relaxed Performance.
• Alexander Robin Baker plays Don José and Sonia Ben-Santamaria conducts on 10 and 12 June.
• Opera Holland Park’s 2022 Season continues until 28 August. For full details of all events and tickets visit its website.