tue 25/06/2024

Carmen, Mid Wales Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Carmen, Mid Wales Opera

Carmen, Mid Wales Opera

Bizet with Jonathan Miller's small forces makes more impact than the Cardiff version

Carmen and Don José, the gypsy and the Navarrais, but which is which?Robert Workman

It’s only a few days since I was remarking, à propos the WNO revival, that Carmen usually survives its interpreters. Now WNO’s humble neighbour, Mid Wales Opera, are proving the same point, but in a more positive spirit, by touring a new production by Jonathan Miller, with a vastly reduced orchestra, a cast of fourteen including chorus, and a set (Nicky Shaw) made up of moveable stagings cleverly lit (by Declan Randall), like some highly simplified Chirico.

Once again, Bizet comes through, not exactly enhanced, not always idiomatic, but as enjoyable as ever.

The unexpected heroes of the show, as seen and heard in Tewkesbury’s Roses Theatre on Thursday, are the ten-piece band under MWO’s musical director, Nicholas Cleobury, playing the score in an extremely skilful reduction by Stephen McNeff. In the old Carl Rosa days a touring production on this scale would have had piano accompaniment, take it or leave it. But these reduced orchestrations are a very different matter if sensitively done, presenting the music in sketch form perhaps, but with plenty of colour and a kind of sonic vitality that is sometimes absent even from full orchestral performances.

One can get endless pleasure following this novel yet expert ensemble through Bizet’s wonderful musicMcNeff’s band is well chosen: a solo trumpet brandishes the opening melody, a solo cello picks out the fate theme, an alto saxophone adds sensual warmth to the middle registers, a guitarist plucks away like some Andalusian harp. One can get endless pleasure just following this novel yet expert ensemble through Bizet’s wonderful music. And what a relief to hear it conducted with such precision and flexibility after the Cardiff shemozzle! Only briefly in the final act did the lack of real body to the sound restrict the drama to any serious extent. Up to this point the texture and movement were fully equal to the stage narrative.

Nicholas LesterMiller’s production (sung in a free English translation by Rory Bremner) is basic and a shade too aware of the limited space in the small-town theatres and cinemas through which the company will thread its way from now until mid-November. For some reason he updates the setting to the 1940s, a drab and ugly time for fashion, in a work that should flaunt costume and colour. And there is little or no sense of southern Spain, no heat, no frenzy, none of that emotional violence that destroys the pure Navarrais in Don José. The movement and choreography are tepid, the fight in Act 3 almost imperceptible. But then Miller’s Carmen, Helen Sherman, is so blond and light-skinned that when the dark, bearded José (Leonel Pinheiro) accuses her of being a gypsy it’s as if the whole production has come out in negative.

The best things in it are intelligent touches in the directing of individual numbers: the card-reading trio (with Daisy Brown and Marta Fontanals-Simmons touchingly bemused by Sherman’s intensity), the toreador’s song, the smugglers’ quintet. But there are musical strengths as well. Sherman herself may not be one of Nature’s Carmens to look at, but she sings the part beautifully, with fine dark colourings in the chest register and plenty of brilliance on top. As Micaëla, Elin Pritchard has to weather an unsuitable gingham frock and bobby socks, sounds inhibited and girlish in Act 1, but blossoms in her big aria, allowing the warmth to flow out. Pinheiro, by contrast, often sounds tight and compressed, which is all right for the character but less so for the music. Nicholas Lester (pictured above right) is a fine, personable Escamillo who knows how to move and how to stand, like any self-respecting toreador.

Cuts are made that one regrets but can understand. Since little boys can’t be toured in school term, their guard-changing chorus goes missing, as – for less obvious reasons – does the Act 2 entr’acte. The dialogue is reduced to a minimum, no great loss, and it shortens the evening manageably for remote areas where footpads still roam the lanes at night and owls turn into witches.

Bizet comes through, not exactly enhanced, not always idiomatic, but as enjoyable as ever


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters