Operas are a trashy old business. Don’t let anyone tell you any differently, and don’t let the occasional audience member wearing a bow tie or the Italian jargon fool you into thinking operas are highbrow, because most of the time, they’re really not.
Take Carmen, for example. One of the most famous operas of all time, with more than its fair share of “hits” (Habanera, the Toreador Song), Bizet’s Carmen tells the story of Jose, a young soldier torn between the affections of goody-two-shoes Micaela and rambunctious gypsy bad girl Carmen, with a jealous lieutenant, showboating bullfighter and a band of gypsy smugglers chucked in for good measure. From its galloping overture to its violent conclusion, subtlety is not Carmen’s strong suit.
The WNO’s production makes much of its Spanish setting, capturing the look of Goya’s paintings in an otherwise very simple, stripped back set (something of a hallmark in recent productions). A just-about-visibly pregnant Alessandra Volpe gives a great account of the eponymous anti-heroine, revelling in her brazen sensuality and in the role’s comic side, and Peter Wedd makes a convincingly befuddled “hero”, but for me the star of the show is Jessica Muirhead as Micaela.
The “good girl” role in many operas is a thankless one. Most of the time, they’re only there as a concession to the morality of the time in which the opera was written. It simply wouldn’t do to have the main characters cavorting about without at least one voice of moral guidance, and that’s the purpose Micaela serves in Carmen, but where she’s allowed to soar is in her Act 3 aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”. Now, “sublime” isn’t a word I use casually, but it really is the only way to describe Muirhead’s performance. Her voice is crystal clear, reminding me of the amazing Gundula Janowitz, and earned the soprano some well-deserved “Bravos” and a standing ovation from many in the audience.
As always, the WNO’s chorus proves itself world class, and are given plenty to sink their musical teeth into, and I loved Christian Fenouillat’s expressionistic curtain, which descended between each act. Through some deft lighting, its giant, painterly swirl changed in colour with each appearance, brilliantly helping to set the tone for the following scene.
Some (very) minor criticisms: The whole thing ends a little anticlimactically (Carmen’s death is sudden, so she doesn’t have the kind of barnstorming “goodbye” aria that someone like Puccini would have given her – though, admittedly, that’s not the WNO’s fault!), and the “bullfighting” theme is used to misguided comic effect during the last scene. There were a few points where the singing from other members of the cast could have been a little tighter (including the adorable moment when one of the children’s chorus came in a beat too early), but this was the opening night, and I’m sure this will have been ironed out in future performances.
Carmen is at the Wales Millennium Centre on September 27th and 28th and October 2nd, before going on a national tour.