No-one could accuse director Annabel Arden and designer Joanna Parker’s production of Carmen of not being innovative or accessible. Whether it is entirely successful is another question, but if one can get over what is arguably its basic flaw there is much to enjoy in this spirited and frequently powerful staging. Arden introduces two non-singing characters, Commère and Compère, who not only narrate the action but also gaze on and sometimes actively participate in the scenes. This makes the plot easy to follow for those unfamiliar with the work, but it also acts as a severe brake on our ability to immerse ourselves in the scenario as we are periodically plucked out of the operatic experience by the English narration (the heavily cut dialogue remains in French). Having the narrators explain the characters’ emotions to us (such as the way in which Don José is drawn to Carmen) sometimes prevents us from actually feeling them as they do not seem to be generated from the individuals themselves. Even the act of the pair silently gazing on Carmen and Don José during ‘Près des remparts de Séville’ makes the dynamics feel false because it tells us that this is a scene to be observed rather than letting us connect naturally with what we see before us.
Nevertheless, if we can get over this basic problem there is still much of merit in this staging. If Arden’s approach is ever to be employed, Carmen is the opera in which to unleash it. It is so hard to see it working for Le nozze di Figaro that it is doubtful anyone would ever try, but within the heightened emotions of Bizet’s creation there is an inherent theatricality that this production plays on. In this respect, the narration is only one part of an approach that emphasises the work’s dramatic qualities. At the start the performers are literally wheeled on upon a platform as if they are being introduced to the scenario, and then throughout the drama they frequently adopt large stylised gestures that again heighten the atmosphere.
A backdrop that possesses a lattice-like pattern since it actually comprises many overlapping shawls proves very effective as video designer Dick Straker’s colourful abstract creations appear on it. These images also include birds to symbolise Carmen’s understanding of love. The staging is simple yet dynamic, and possesses quite a few recurring motifs. A bull ring is marked out in the ground as a simple circle where it not only becomes the arena for the final confrontation between Carmen and Don José, but also the performance space for ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’. In this way Carmen becomes like a torero defying anyone who dares to confront her as she espouses her philosophies on love and in the process reveals her essence. Similarly, a knife appears not only at the end when Carmen is killed but also throughout the evening. Don José stabs Zuniga with one in Act II and Micaëla also produces one when she says goodbye to the soldiers towards the start in response to them trying to crack on to her.
There is a great spirit to ‘Les tringles des sistres tintaient’ seemingly set in a 1970s disco (the costumes throughout are broadly modern), and it is good to see the dancing carried out by the singers themselves rather than people employed especially for the purpose. Similarly, it would be far too difficult to introduce an entire children’s chorus for the small amount that the urchins sing. This production makes their scene work well, however, by using some of the female chorus for ‘Avec la garde montante’, turning them into flirtatious teenagers who have a bit of fun with the soldiers as they distract them while they undergo their inspection. Looking at the approach as a whole, Acts III and IV are very successful as the verbal interjections of the narrators are minimal and yet the more physical aspects of their performance, including a priceless turn with some Seville oranges, bring out the necessary theatricality and dynamism to the full.
The evening’s musical credentials are strong with conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud leading the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on a tour de force although the ensemble also reveals remarkable sensitivity when this is required. Na’ama Goldman is excellent in the title role as her mezzo-soprano, which is blessed with an extremely intriguing and almost mystical timbre, proves very versatile. She looks the part and very much acts it as she seductively smiles at the guards as they arrest her and yet also conveys the coolness of one who knows they need make no effort to still be alluring. It is interesting how in her encounter with Don José at the end of Act II, although there is strong interaction between her and Leonardo Capalbo, they are not always physically that close as she stands aloof and he is more inclined to sit huddled like a ’broken’ man. Capalbo, with his strong, expansive and aesthetically pleasing tenor, conveys the innocent corporal who cannot escape becoming infatuated with the ‘femme fatale’ very convincingly.
Shelley Jackson as Micaëla sings ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ exquisitely while Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo delivers ‘Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre’ very effectively. Marianne Croux, Filipa van Eck, Tiago Matos and Christophe Poncet de Solages make up a strong quartet as Frasquita, Mercédès, Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado respectively and together with Goldman introduce an excellent ensemble dynamic to ‘Nous avons en tête une affaire’. Finally, no matter how one views the effectiveness of employing narrators in this context, there is no denying that Aïcha Kossoko and Tonderai Munyevu play the roles of the Commère and Compère extremely well.
For details of all events in its 2017 season visit The Grange Festival website.