Massive cast changes and performance restructuring cannot disrupt Bizet’s classic.
Some nights at the opera will go down in history, and the opening performance of Carmen in Longborough Festival Opera’s 2022 season will surely be one of them. There are many stories in the opera world of last minute dropouts prompting hasty rearrangements, and even the birth of a new star, but few could come close to matching what befell the Cotswolds venue on the morning of its opening performance. After the dress rehearsal had run smoothly the day before, no fewer than six cast members tested positive for COVID-19 the following morning and were unable to perform. The scale of the problem was underlined by the fact that of the four main principals only one (Peter Gijsbertsen as Don José) was left standing, while not only did the person set to play Micaëla test positive but so too did her understudy!
There were covers on hand, but there is a big difference between slotting one person in who might be slightly less experienced with the planned dynamic staging, and having almost an entire cast who are. As a result, the decision was made to present opening night as a ‘concert performance, with design and costume elements’ although what resulted might have reasonably been described as semi-staged. What Longborough achieved in such difficult circumstances was quite remarkable, with all of the covers making the most of their unexpected opportunity to perform their parts to a live audience, and several of them proving particularly strong. If the cast and production team, led by director Mathilde López, were disappointed not to be able to present their innovative take on the work in its fully fledged glory, it certainly felt as if parts of the vision came across still.
In this modern day update, the women worked not in a cigarette but a meat packing factory, and the curtain rose to reveal hanging meats and a huge billboard advertising holidays to Andalusia. Small statues and pictures of the Virgin Mary were dotted all around, while the interaction between the divine and the everyday was highlighted by the flowers that once adorned a processional Madonna being shown lying in a skip. All of the performers sat around the stage, donning masks when they were not singing and stepping forward at the appropriate moments to perform. It was Act I that suffered the most from this approach as it contains several key moments for the men’s, women’s and children’s chorus (performed here by the excellent Longborough Youth Chorus). Although in each instance some effort was made to make the lines that each stood in feel a little broken and rabble-like, what was presented was clearly pared down from what had originally been planned. The difficulty was that Carmen really needs to go with a swing from the start, so it cannot afford to contain anything that makes it feel more timid. It is the reason why, under normal circumstances, it is not an opera one would readily choose to semi-stage because it really needs the dynamism that comes with full movement.
The problem, however, did not persist, and ‘Les tringles des sistres tintaient’ worked well as the majority of the cast contributed a little clapping while the three central figures of Carmen, Frasquita (Angharad Watkeys replacing Haegee Lee) and Mercédès (Idunnu Münch) gave it their all. Also effective were some of the smaller ensemble numbers that typically involved three to five people such as ‘Nous avons en tête une affaire’. These could presumably be presented more closely to how they had originally been intended, and sounded very good indeed. So too did the choruses, which was impressive since there were generally only three to a part.
“…few could come close to matching what befell the Cotswolds venue on the morning of its opening performance”
The opera was sung in English utilising Amanda Holden’s translation, and included dialogue that had been devised by the cast. Sometimes it felt as if it really spelled things out, but that was not a bad thing when understanding Don José’s past so clearly helped us to appreciate his present situation and state of mind. It was also in the dialogue, especially between Carmen and Don José, that the concept appeared to come into its own. Carmen seemed not to be the traditional ice queen or femme fatale but rather someone more akin to the most popular girl in college. Her banter with Don José when she was trying to persuade him to let her escape felt very natural, and there was no doubt that she lived in the modern day. While Onegin dancing with his friend’s fiancée could, in that context, lead to a duel, here Carmen just thought Don José was being silly for getting jealous because she sang and danced for some other people in Lillas Pastia’s. Some might suggest that such an interpretation misses the point of Carmen’s character, but the production freely acknowledges that it is looking at her in a new way, and the interpretation would seem to be a perfectly valid and effective one. When she gave out the advice that it is good to hope, there had clearly been many occasions when she had clung to hope herself, and this made her a very human and relatable figure.
Bernadette Johns, replacing Margaret Plummer in the title role, gave an excellent performance as her highly pleasing mezzo-soprano was matched by her stage presence. Peter Gijsbertsen as Don José may have had the ‘luxury’ of being one of the original cast members, but he delivered an extremely persuasive performance as his impassioned and expansive tenor really came to the fore in ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’. Matthew Siveter, replacing Matthew Durkan as Escamillo, gave a brilliant rendition of ‘Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre’ as he asserted his very strong baritone and revealed just the right level of swagger. Micaëla was the one part where both the planned performer Jennifer Witton and cover were indisposed. Fortunately, Linda Richardson who played the title role in Anna Bolena here in 2019 was in the area, and stepped in at five hours notice to learn and perform the part. She understandably sang from a music stand, but the class and quality of her voice were plain for all to hear. Szymon Chojnacki was highly effective as Zuniga, while the dialogue as it was performed here also enabled several minor characters to come to life. With his spoken lines, James Gribble made Lillas Pastia into a real person, while Le Dancaïre (Kieran Rayner) and Le Remendado (Lars Fischer replacing Alex Haigh) became a double act with the former being the brainy smuggler and the latter the dunce.
The revelries in Act IV did not suffer in the same way as some of the presentation of Act I did, as by then everyone was into stride, including the orchestra which was brilliantly led by Jeremy Silver and also ensured that the evening had sufficient energy. There are ten days between the first and last performance so there is still a chance that the final outings will see a ‘return to normality’, but I would gladly watch this production again in either its full or semi-staged form and with either its original cast members or any combination of its covers.
• Longborough Festival Opera’s 2022 season continues until 2 August. For details of all of its productions and tickets visit its website.