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Carmen – EmpireTheatre, Liverpool

Book: Prosper Merimee, Henri Meilhac, Ludovic Halevy

Music: Georges Bizet

Director: Ellen Kent

Conductor: Nicolae Dohotaru

Reviewer: Jamie Gaskin


Carmen - Ellen Kent OperaCigarette girls can seriously damage your health. That may be the obvious message from Bizet’s celebrated opera, but there’s so much more to this powerful and passionate tale.

The bewitching Carmen first entraps the gallant soldier Don Jose before setting her dark smouldering sights on the heroic toreador Escamillo. On the way she cynically beguiles customs men so that her smuggler pals can bring home their booty.

Carmen is an excellent choice for those unfamiliar with opera offering delightful singalong music and an earthy uncomplicated plot. This version from Moldova’s Chisinau National Opera and Philharmonic captures the colourful carnival mood of Spain but does not stint on the tortures of passion.

Ellen Kent’s direction and staging has a light touch which occasionally felt more like operetta and was often reminded of the less gritty Merry Widow. But this gives the show both variety and pace.

The team were backed by Chisnau’s Philharmonic Orchestra who, to their credit handle Bizet’s subtler moods with the required restraint and delicate phrases. Although they occasionally went out of tune during some of the faster pieces and were not totally together for the overture.

But Bizet’s very familiar music is always going to steal the show. His set pieces reminding us that love… like Carmen; is a gypsy and will not be tamed. Then there’s the lively party drum rhythm with its crashing crescendo and of course the fabulous Toreador Song which was delightfully reprised in incidental snatches.

Mezzo-Soprano Nadezdha Stoianova is justifiably celebrated as a jewel in the crown of Chisinau’s Opera team. A stunning voice revelling in the luscious lyrics carried along on Bizet’s magical sound waves. She oozes sultry but for me she could be a touch more slinky.

What chance has Micaela (Ecaterina Danu) sent by Don Jose’s mother with a message to bring him home? Don Jose’s mother’s dying wish being that he should marry Micaela.

Danu is a superb soprano who ensures that her musical tones match her pale innocence. The perfect antidote to balance the irrepressible Carmen whose lyrics so often shout about freedom and sneer at duty.

Sorin Lupu wrestles well with his dilemmas as the love-tortured Don Jose who is ordered to guard Carmen when she is accused of injuring a fellow cigarette-factory girl. She plays him like a fiddle and he soon deserts his post and takes up with the smugglers. Lupu gives his songs a superb painful eloquence.

Whereas Iurie Gisca armed with Escamillo’s Toreador Song holds nothing back and his voice is full of the bravado mopping up the adulation a bullfighter is due.

There was much oohing and aahing at the much publicised horse who elegantly strutted his stuff on the stage to magnify Escamillo’s glory. Probably the only opera star to get an ovation when they haven’t sung a note.

Reviewed on 8th April.

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