Carmen

Carmen

NZ Opera production
Thursday 1 June 2017, St James Theatre, Wellington

Music: Georges Bizet
Libretto: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy,

Based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée.

Director: Lindy Hume
Conductor: Francesco Pasqualetti

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

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Carmen: Nino Surguladze
Don José: Tom Randle
Escamillo: James Clayton
Micaëla: Emma Pearson
Zuniga: Wade Kernot
Moralès / Le Dancaïre: James Harrison
Fransquita: Amelia Berry
Mercédès: Kristin Darragh
Le Remendado: Jame Benjamin Rodgers

with Orchestra Wellington and the Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus

Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Production Designer: Dan Potra
Lighting Designer: Matt Marshall
Chorus Director: Michael Vinten
Head of Wigs and Makeup: Charlie Oswin
Head of Wardrobe: Sophie Ham
Surtitles Operators: Christine and Jim Pearce

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The short story (tldr) :

Bizet’s music elevates the mundane drama of a tragic love affair gone bad to epic proportions. The music was marvellous – from the superb voices from the soloists and chorus to the accompaniment from Orchestra Wellington. My highlights: Nino Surguladze as Carmen was perfect.  James Clayton as Escamillo and Emma Pearson as Micaëla were excellent. And the amazing final scene – effective and affective. 8/10

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The long story:

Carmen is one of the most popular operas in the world, regularly ranked in most lists in the top five operas worldwide, in any year. Bizet’s music elevates the mundane drama of a tragic love affair gone bad to epic proportions. And, at the heart of it, the music was marvellous – the superb voices from the soloists and chorus and the capable accompaniment from Orchestra Wellington.

Nino Surguladze as Carmen was perfect. Her sultry mezzo voice was balanced perfectly to the dramatic tension involved. Sassy, taunting, seductive, ardent – these are descriptions of her voice! Her voice carried effortlessly even when she was lying back on her side, or prone on the stage, or demonstrating crunchies on the chair! Carmen is a passionate woman – some may say fickle, some free-spirited. Nino convinced me of Carmen’s descent from fervent lover to a self-destructive calamity.

Carmen with chorus members

James Clayton as Escamillo, the torear, was superb. His voice was even in all registers, with effortless breath control and range of dynamic. His acting was hotheaded but calm – Escamillo’s head ruled his heart, despite his protestation of love for Carmen.

Emma Pearson as Micaëla – a pure, innocent voice. Some of her phrase breaks were quite unusual but successful – much more interesting. When she sang in full voice at the top of her range is was most impressive – every note exactly in tune and in control.

James Harrison as Moralès and Le Dancaïre was always in control too, as an actor and a singer – he made a minor role into a vehicle of authority. 

Two singers improved as the night went on: Tom Randle and Amelia Berry. I suspect they were trying too hard. In Act 2, Amelia as Frasquita was overpowering – she completely overbalanced the other four performers in the quintet. Her voice is vibrant and resonant, I enjoy her singing immensely and her acting is very, very good – but she was too loud. After the interval, the balance was certainly improved.

Don Jose & CarmenTom Randle as Don José was fine for the most part but, in the first two Acts, when he crescendoed and reached for his high notes two or three times he was quite sharp. His French had a muted nasal tone that didn’t appear in the other singers.  After the interval  his voice was much more even and by the last scene he was superb. [Odd, because his character’s persona was quite the opposite.] As I said, I think he was trying too hard. As an actor, Tom was distressingly good. The disintegrating of Don José over the opera was hard to bear: from duty-bound soldier to ‘dirty cop’ to jailbird to deserter to incompetent smuggler to spurned and jealous lover to irrational murderer. By the last scene he was quite insane. The opera has many layers, but this decay of Don José moral and mental health could almost be an indictment of the New Zealand Mental Health system. Very relevant!

The chorus was excellent. I suspect some very involved foldback was at the back of the stage or the wings, because a lot of the people could not see the conductor at all. Bizet was generous with the chorus numbers with beautiful melodies and dramatic moments and the men and women – and the children – made the most of it. Very well done indeed.Escamillo, Carmen and the chorus

Opera is more than music –  direction, acting, choreography, design work and setting, lighting, costume, makeup…. I have seen Carmen many times and played in a production [Bizet’s cello parts are wonderful!] so it was interesting see a new ‘take’ in this production from Lindy Hume and her team. Some of her ideas took a while to work themselves out and some were a puzzle to me.

Carmen is an example of ‘verismo’ opera – a style of writing marked by melodramatic, often violent plots with characters drawn from everyday life. It has four Acts: the Cigarette Factory in Seville, Lillas Pastia’s Tavern, the Smuggler’s Hideout, and the Bullfight Arena in Seville. At the beginning, the style was very realistic, even conventional, but as the opera progressed it was increasingly surreal. The final fatal scene was absolutely ‘Hitchcockian’!

[By the way: if you have not seen the production, the following paragraphs will contain ‘spoilers’! And I am taking things out of chronological order too.]

Some of Lindy’s ideas were explained later: for example, when the Overture began a spotlight burst illuminated the audience. That baffled me, but in Act 4, the same method included the audience as participants at the parade of the bullfighters. Then it identified a surreal use of time dilation: the cast was in slow motion. We are used to this ‘trickery’ with films or tv. It is not realistic, but it increases the tension and the anxiety for what is about to happen. Another instance: Escamillo’s first aria ‘Toreador!, when he described his bullfighting experience. The first verse was realistic – he was explaining to the ‘boys’ about his bravado and courage. But in the second verse Escamilio, the celebrity, was spotlighted and everyone else was frozen – except Carmen. She circled around him, orbited his stellar presence, intent on his dangerous aura, fascinated by him. I was surprised that she was not directed to share the spotlight!

By Act 4, Lindy almost dispensed with reality entirely: A stylized funeral scene for Don José mother was interrupted by the villager’s vendors around the arena – the Orange, Fans, Programme, Wine, Water, Cigarettes sellers – had no props at all. And the incessant busyness of the towns people was a whirlwind knocking Don José over.

The set, a four-piece movable crumbling masonry wall with attendant scaffolding stairs, was very clever. Zuniga and female chorus membersThe factory in Act 1, spun around for a room in the tavern in Act 2, to a cavern hideaway in mountains in Act 3. But it was revealed as brilliant in the last scene. The arena’s walls closed in claustrophobically trapping the unstable Don José and the despairing Carmen. The lighting grew stark, unshadowed – the shadows on the wall were ominous. [As I said, Hitchcockian!] Incidentally (or on purpose?) the wall provided a backdrop for the singing to be amplified, so the orchestra was given full ‘voice’ itself. It was an amazing scene – effective and affective. We saw the inner processes of their tortured minds – Don José distraught, Carmen resigned. Then a master stroke: the applauding chorus backlit on the one of the walls, tipping the balance of Don José fragile mind – Carmen taunting him with the pistol on her forehead, willing him to kill her. No ‘operatic death scene’ for Carmen. The murder was brutal – shocking.

In this day and age, some of the societal niceties were observed. Rather cigarette smoke curling skywards, we had the men suggestively massaging their necks, and adjusting their trousers, and then gather around, swaying to the rhythm from the singing girls. Sometimes the acting direction was at odds with the musical direction, particularly when the tempo was lively, or the conductor was obscured, or the soloists were too far apart: the fight scene at the factory for example, or the smuggler’s quintet. Rhythmically they were a bit wayward – but a performance or two will sort that out.

But I couldn’t comprehend some of the direction: the men’s insensitive and bullying behaviour to Micaëla, the aggressive attitude of the parading children, or the awkwardness and uncomfortableness of the dancer at Lillas Pastia’s Tavern.

All in all is was an excellent Carmen. The music – voices and orchestra – and drama were affective and the direction, lighting, set design, costumes … were very impressive. It will live in my memory for a long time.

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