DramaOperaReviewSouth West

Carmen – Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Composer: Georges Bizet

Libretto: Henri Melham and Ludovic Haley

Director: Jo Davies

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

A new production of Bizet’s iconic operatic sizzler Carmen rightly arouses much interest. The wonderful music is a given, with much of it familiar even to non-opera goers. So – like the emperor’s new clothes – the question must be: What does it bring to the table?

In the case of Jo Davies’ production for Welsh National Opera, it is not overstating to say, top of the league. Not flawless, but despite one or two minor alterations to dialogue, Davies remains true to the original story of the wilful gypsy girl and her soldier lover and their torrid and doomed relationship while bringing out the social and sexual elements inherent to it.

Moved to Brazil in the 1970s, with machine-gun-toting soldiers guarding a garrison and the girls in the cigarette factory in boiler suits, yet keeping all the drama and the at times gut-wrenching libretto of this, one of the most well-known operas worldwide, Davies’ Carmen under the skilled baton of conductor Tomáš Hanus, scores, bar a few minor caveats.

Traditionally, Carmen is known for its colour, but in this production, the reds and oranges of the front curtain lowered and raised between scenes are the only brightness – in stark contrast to the backdrop of a tenement building in greys and duns. The latter, however, is an important element here, establishing a background against which the tragedy of Carmen is played out, although there are a few extraneous touches that are irritating.
Much of the success of any production of this opera rests on the shoulders of the central title role. Here mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez, making her debut both with the company and in the role, has the added advantage of French being her native tongue. Verrez’s Carmen is provocative and lustful, waiting for the men to come to her – very much in command of the situation. Verrez’ singing, both in her solo arias and her duets with Don José, is of a high standard maintained throughout from the Habanera in Act I and Carmen’s defiant entry until the tragedy of her end. If there is a criticism of Verrez’ portrayal it must be that her pony-tailed Carmen looks at times more college girl than gypsy.

As her besotted soldier lover José, Dimitra Pittas holds his own, with a powerful tenor which he adapts as appropriate in the soulful duet with Micaela, the country girl from back home who tries to save him from himself, beautifully interpreted and sung by Anita Watson. The bullfighter Escamillo – the rival who displaces Jose from Carmen’s affections – is portrayed by Phillip Rhodes as a man of the people, strutting his stuff with insouciance, a confident adversary against whom poor José doesn’t stand a chance.

Not only singing but dancing is required by Harriet Eyley and Angela Simkin, both performers giving accomplished performances in the roles of Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mércèdes. The chorus of the WNO, plus a posse of children, makes a major contribution, while Oliver Fenwick’s atmospheric lighting works subtly in aiding and abetting Leslie Travers clever single set which is subtly altered from scene to scene. New choreography mixes Argentinian tango with a hint of Paso Doble, complete with a mock-up bull whose appearance in the final act is an inspired touch, giving the denouement into tragedy an added potency.

Next playing: Thursday February 27 and Saturday February 29, 2020 | Image: Bill Cooper

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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