According to David McVicar, who first directed this Carmen in 2002, Bizet’s opera is “probably the first musical, with hit tune after hit tune” so the seamlessness with which the ‘hits’ blend into the whole in this production, now revived by Marie Lambert, is all the more remarkable. In common with the 2014 Festival, this ‘second show,’ like Graham Vick’s classic version of Eugene Onegin which occupied that position last year, provides a visually striking, conceptually traditional evening which would be the ideal introduction to opera.
We don’t often comment on the conducting or the orchestral playing before the singers, but on this occasion Jakub Hrůša coaxed such warm, vivid playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra that it really was the star of the show. Richard Strauss said “If you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores, study the score of Carmen” and the LPO on this occasion enabled us to hear why. From the effervescent overture to the final anguished bars, this was playing of true Festival standard not only in its support for the singers but also in its finely phrased accounts of music which can so often seem perfunctory in performance.
There was nothing token about Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s Carmen, either; those who experienced her Concepción in the 2012 L’Heure Espagnole will not have been disappointed by her sultry, flamboyant character portrayal and her vibrant, passionate, smoky-toned singing. Her French diction is as crisp and exact as you’d expect from a native speaker, and she succeeds in making you see the fascination exerted by her character, even if you cannot exactly admire it.
Her Don José was the Czech tenor Pavel Cernoch, who presented an earnest, decent soldier and lover – those epithets could also describe his singing, which seldom soared into the required passion although his ‘Flower song’ had moments of warmth. His diction is at present rather cloudy, and there are times when he needs more incisive direction. David Soar’s Escamillo gradually acquired confidence as his opening aria proceeded, revealing a fine-grained bass; he, too, could have done with some sharper direction.
Lucy Crowe gave yet another demonstration of her versatility with her sweetly sympathetic Micaëla, as ever finely sung and characterized with entirely credible empathy. The smaller roles, especially Gavan Ring’s Moralès, Eliana Pretorian’s Frasquita and Rihab Chaieb’s Mercédès were all well taken and the chorus under Jeremy Bines responded enthusiastically to all that was expected of them.
The production’s chief strengths lie in its evocation of the more seedy side of Seville, its naturalistic presentation of character, its flamboyant costumes (Sue Blane) and most of all its wonderfully apt, atmospheric, poetic lighting – no surprise that that’s by Paule Constable. There are times when the action seems to be crammed into a small space, such as the scene set in the Square when the bullfighters are being welcomed, but at other times the stage is used with spacious and evocative power. This is especially evident in Act III where the mountain scene is created with minimal means but haunting effects, and in the final moments which set the murder of Carmen by Don José in the bleakest and yet most painterly of surroundings.