A review by Julia Gasper.
If you can get a last-minute ticket to see the second performance of Welsh National Opera’s CARMEN tonight at the New Theatre, Oxford, get it by any means and go, because this is a wonderful, exciting production, certainly the best Carmen I have ever seen. It is not just good, it is GREAT. Everything about this production works well, brings new insight into Bizet’s masterpiece, and it is as near to a perfect production as I hope to see. The young conductor, James Southall, was so electric when he got onto the podium that the audience immediately realised they were in for something special. You don’t need to bury your nose in a programme because there are surtitles.
The curtain, with its massive splash of scarlet, gave all the right messages. Red is a colour we associate with Spanish dancing, with gypsies, with excitement, danger, blood and sex, all of the ingredients of this story of passion and jealousy in a hot-blooded country where bull-fighting is the national sport. When Carmen meets Don José in Mérimée’s original story, she is dressed in a red skirt, with red shoes, and in fact the name Carmen, as well as meaning a song, can mean the colour vermilion. Vermilion and “carmine” both mean the light red dye derived from an insect, vermiculus kermes.
In the lead rôle, mezzo-soprano Kirsten Chávez was voluptuous, proud and mocking. Her voice has delicious nuances from black satin to a syrupy sweetness. Her opening aria, a habañera, with its sinuous chromatic melody, seems to suggest the curves of a woman’s body and the feline movements of her walk. Carmen is the epitome of the liberated woman, and that, together with her gypsy blood, is her allure. She flirts with Jon José, the soldier, on a mere caprice, then blatantly seduces him to get herself out of arrest. She only means to reward him with a few nights of fun, not to capture his heart for life.
Gwyn Hugh-Jones made a fine and memorable Don José. He has an attractive, glowing voice, and put over the complexities of the series of dilemmas he finds himself in. At first he only wants to help a girl being treated harshly in prison. He frees Carmen but she captivates him. Hopelessly ensnared, he sacrifices everything for her, his job, his honour, and his chance of marrying the devoted Micaela, the country girl who loves him and would have made a far better wife. He becomes an outlaw, a gypsy, to follow Carmen but he cannot own her – nobody can. As Micaela, Jessica Muirhead was moving, and got applause for her wistful aria in Act Three.
Costas Smoriginas as Escamillo was quite a show-stopper. When he enters, he is very glamorous, the pop-star and film-star who makes the girls sigh. The caped and sequinned matador is the embodiment of virility in Spanish culture, like it or not – and Carmen does like it. Smoriginas gave a splendid performance, starting with his celebrated “Toreador” (a word that apparently Bizet invented). The crowd scene at the beginning of Act Four was a tour-de-force. The brilliant Goya-esque colours, the lighting, the movements and expressions of the chorus as they conveyed the actions of the bullfight in progress, were marvellous. And we must mention the children, who danced and sang so delightfully, and the orchestra, who produced so many fantastic sounds.
We came away feeling that we must have slept through all previous performances of Carmen because this one had showed us so much more, and shed so much more light on everything. It had also given us a glimpse of the real darkness of Don José’s despair. He stabs Carmen, not to punish her for being a bad woman – that would be banal – but simply because he loves her and cannot bear to let her go. He knows it is wrong, and she chooses it when she says to him, “I will have liberty or death!”
Drop everything and snap up any last-minute returns you can get to see this great production.
Julia Gasper. 16/10/2014.
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