WNO opens its Autumn season of 2019 with a take on Bizet’s classic, directed by Jo Davies, to be repeated with an alternate cast in the Spring. Carmen is carried by its own fame and, especially in its first half, by some of the most recognisable arias in opera, making it a more accessible work even for those who are not as a norm opera aficionados. The story also has some relevance to the present day, with its tale of violence motivated (but not justified) by love; pretty much with its every iteration on stage, it is accompanied by debates on the nature of the events and the complicity or condemnation purportedly expressed by the author towards its male lead. All else aside, this alone is a sign that Carmen is in many ways still very relevant, because of – rather than in spite of – the simplicity of its plot and the lack of depth of its characters, save the titular one. Here the setting is moved to a nondescript recent history in Latin America, where some kind of revolutionary turmoil is suggested by an overabundance of heavy weaponry (pretty much everyone is at some point wielding a gun), a context that came across jarring at the start but, once one became acclimatised to it, worked well with the text and revitalised the tension between the characters originally attributed to Carmen’s gypsy heritage.
The staging is curated in extreme detail, as is often the case with WNO productions, with the drab-looking background animated through added props and the movement of the characters; the flow is also generally good, though at times, especially in the more crowded scenes, movement on stage is at risk of coming across as too static. There is some excellent dance choreographing in the first act, and some of those scenes would have benefited from more of the same; it is after all an opera which in its numerous outings has always made abundant use of dance, and for a good reason.
Easily the best thing about this production is its protagonist. Mezzosoprano Virginie Verrez infuses her Carmen with a vitality, intensity, and playfulness that leave no doubt as to what character here the audience is supposed to find sympathetic. The programme elaborates on the difficulties of representing on stage a situation where murder is committed as a result of what is at the bottom pretty much domestic violence; it references the past failed attempt by a Florentine production of 2018 to turn the tables by having Carmen kill Don José in self-defence, which was at the time heavily criticised as a distortion of the original. Here Verrez, her performance, and the way she is directed show that such gimmicks are not necessary; all that is needed to convey the story of Carmen as one of a woman punished for her independence by a violent ex-lover is already in the character, and it only takes the right performance to bring it clearly out. Verrez can also rely on a vivid, well-rounded vocal delivery, which makes all her parts animated and intense; her take on the famous Habanera is the strongest moment of this production.
Virginie Verrez and Dimitri Pittas
Phillip Rhodes and Dimitri Pittas
In contrast to this, Dimitri Pittas makes his Don José tense and vaguely hysterical in points, using vibrato to convey his instability, giving him a stage presence that is often easy to dismiss – there are scenes where he gets lost in the crowd, as opposed to Phillip Rhodes’ Escamillo, who is always easily spotted; there is a feeling that this is by design, and it works well with the subtext surrounding these characters. Where Pittas gives Don José a constant sense of understated tension, Rhodes makes Escamillo flamboyant and over-the-top, with an interesting take on movement on stage that works well for a character that is built almost entirely on his physicality. His tackling of the Toreador aria is playful and confident, though with some minor uncertainties in the lower range. The two performances convincingly highlight the contrast between the two male characters, making them even more polar opposites than in the text itself. Also worthy of mention are the performances of Anita Watson as a scared but determined Micaela, and of Angela Simkin and Harriet Eyley as Mercedes and Frasquita respectively, providing Carmen with something akin to a Greek choir of her own, especially in the second half.
Carmen has been tackled in many forms and the possible problematic charge of its story, together with the popularity of its arias, make its likely that this will be far from its last big production in the next few years. Contrasted with past attempts in the UK and elsewhere, this production has the merit of conveying its message in a way that is effective while staying loyal to the text, without need to preach or overemphasise elements that are the most impactful when delivered in their original form. Coming out of the theatre, one is left with the impression of Carmen, her determination, and her defiance, as the most vivid of all; this was clearly the intent of the director and creatives, and one at which they have succeeded.
Until October 10 at WMC then touring