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Carmen at New Theatre Oxford.

A review by Julia Gasper

Welsh National Opera at New Theatre Oxford

19th November 2019

WNO’s new production of Bizet’s Carmen is a real winner. With outstanding soloists, superb orchestra led by the Czech conductor Tomáš Hanus and a bold, modern-day setting, it is enough to convince you that you have never seen Carmen before.

            Virginie Verrez, the young French soprano who takes the title rôle, has a rich voice full of colour and seduction. Her subtle acting, with very modern body-language, made the gypsy heroine fascinating and hypnotic. It also helps that she is slim enough to look attractive in a factory girl’s overalls or a pair of very tight jeans.

An announcement at the beginning of the second half told the audience that Dimitri Pittas (tenor) singing Don José, was suffering from a throat infection and apologized for any shortcomings of his performance. We would never have guessed, as he gave a fine, moving performance with a passionate, lyrical tone. If this is what he is like on one cylinder, what is he like on a good day?


The third member of the tragic love triangle, Escamillo, the bull-fighter, was performed admirably by Phillip Rhodes (baritone), bringing out all the ebullient, pop-star magnetism of this character. He added a streak of comic self-parody to the rôle too, which was enjoyable. Escamillo and Carmen are made for each other and from the moment he appears on the scene Don José should realize he is going to be the loser. But love is, as always, blind. Anita Watson as Micaëla, the innocent village girl who loves Don José, sang movingly with a pure and lovely tone.

The setting is drab and the curtain rises on what appears to be a prison, with tiers of doorways behind a grid like a huge cage. It is a startling contrast after the bouncy, boisterous overture with its carnival atmosphere, an atmosphere that is almost too hectic, too excited, too feverish, like love run mad. The story has been shifted from nineteenth-century Seville to a present-day South American Hispanic military dictatorship, and the prison seems to be a metaphor. The soldiers in their barracks are, in a sense, prisoners. The women who work in the tobacco factory are also virtual prisoners, dressed in overalls, glad to escape at the end of their shift.

Into this drab scene comes Carmen, singing that she will always be free as a bird. Although she is only a working-class gypsy girl, she proclaims that she is a free spirit, and no one can tie her down. She is like an alluring glimpse of another sort of existence. Everybody wants to be free, but freedom remains dubious and elusive in this tragic tale. Carmen blatantly uses her sexuality to bargain with Don José and get him to release her from police custody. His career is ruined. He escapes his soldier’s life but only finds a poor sort of freedom in the gypsy camp, living the existence of a bandit. He can never go back because he will be shot as a deserter. He finds that he is once again a sort of prisoner. LIBERTÉ proclaims the banner slung across the gypsy camp, but it is an ironic motto as far as Don José is concerned.

Carmen lures him with a mirage of freedom, and when she is tired of him she finds that their relationship is a sort of prison. She has paid her debt by taking him as her lover for a while, now she wants to move on, and follow her frank desire for Escamillo. But Don José loves her too desperately and possessively to let go.

During the interval I sat near a man who was earnestly studying his programme and consulting the plot summary. He explained to his wife, “I want to know if it ends well.” It does not end well, and never has no matter how many times I have seen this opera.

            The programme notes call Carmen’s tragic death “femicide”, part of the ongoing, unsolved problem of male violence towards women. In Britain today, approximately two women per week are murdered by their partners or ex-partners, and similar horrific statistics prevail globally. Feminist groups continue to campaign to draw attention to it, to jerk us out of a complacent attitude that this is “just the way it is” and nothing can be done. Undoubtedly male possessiveness and a desire for domination play their part in it, if not even darker urges. Would it be better if Carmen seized the knife and stabbed Don José? It would still be a tragedy but it might make a stimulating change.

            Don’t miss your chance to see this powerful and thought-provoking production.

                                                            Julia Gasper.

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