Theatre in Wales

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Carmen Calmed

Carmen

Mid-Wales Opera , Theatr Hafren Newtown , September-07-14
Carmen by Mid-Wales Opera “I’m a huge admirer of Mid Wales Opera” ends the heavyweight opera critic of the Daily Telegraph in his summation of the company’s twenty-fifth anniversary year production. Mid Wales Opera joins a cluster of three other enduring companies in Wales who have hit this milestone in the last couple of years. The programme appropriately carries an article of retrospection by Keith Darlington and Barbara Maguire. They are characteristically modest in their memories but their creation in the most unlikely of locales had many its moment of heroism. Earlier programmes contained tales of how a shortage of space entailed the painting of backcloths al fresco. A sudden appearance of a shower over the Severn Valley would have the company wrapping up their semi-completed work and scuttling inside for shelter.

Opera is music and opera is drama; in this “Carmen” the former outshines the latter. Nicholas Cleobury’s baton presides over a newly commissioned orchestration by Stephen NcNeff, which shifts Bizet into a vivacious texture of saxophone, guitar and xylophone to add to the once revolutionary castanets and tambourine. Jose makes an exit to a frenzy of percussion. The cast delights. Helen Sherman is a magnetic Carmen. Leonel Pinheiro on this second performance rises to a climax of rage and frustration on his realisation of fickleness and betrayal. Nicholas Lester is a lordly Escamillo, displacing his rival with ease. Elin Pritchard as Micaela earns fulsome applause for her third act performance. The new translation is lively barring the occasional dip into rhyming by autopilot- “make you glow with pride/ make you feel good inside.”

And then there is the Concept. The production has been prompted by a desire to avoid what is called“ operatic tourism”, reportedly prompted by a comment from a Met audience member on recognition of a sumptuously realised Seville. Act one’s tobacco factory, in a setting that is more Castille in November than sun-drenched Andalusia, is a right-angled block, that might have been a borrowing from Mussolini’s city of Latina. The soldiers are pre-Civil War, uniforms and Simon Wilding’s slicked-hair Zuniga familiar from “Pan’s Labyrinth.” The smugglers from Gibraltar might have arrived from the racetrack in the Boultings’ “Brighton Rock.” The women in the cave wear tailored black market jackets. Carmen herself is a figure from the later, and lesser, Dennis Potter. There are possibilities in extending her Gypsy identity- given the dire condition of today’s Roma- but she is a figure of comfort in a safety first interpretation.

Much of this is fine and the sound is joy. But Concept is there to bring new vistas and insights to a familiar work. Mid Wales Opera’s production of 2011 did it with flair and conviction but a chasm separates innovation and novelty. The design works well for Act 2. But Concept ought not to take precedence over the creation of visual image. Performance for an audience is just sound and movement. The logic of the first two acts means that the admirable cast of fourteen moves on a restricted space of stage, six or so feet in front of blocks of set, for the production’s second half. The viewing eye yearns for action deployed over a full three dimensions.

The director once brilliantly fused Verdi into the visuals of Edward Hopper. This “Carmen” has the cheer and the dynamism, less the space, of a De Chirico. So strong is the anti-Romantic aversion that Don Jose forgoes his knife and pulls a Luger out of his pocket. He makes a fussy exit and re-entry via a little pair of steps to perform his climactic act. Concept in the end still owes obligation to the spirit of the original. This, the most Dionysiac of works in the opera canon, is calmed down with an excess of Apollo.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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