When a dignified gentleman in black tie emerges from the stage curtain at the end of the interval, you always fear the worst. Illness? Accident? What had befallen the Welsh National Opera’s touring production of Carmen this night at the New Theatre in Oxford?
Dimitri Pittas (Don Jose, a major protagonist and challenging vocal role) had been suffering from a chest infection for the past few weeks. Pittas’ coughing had not gone unnoticed by the audience, but it absolutely did not seem to affect his singing capabilities whatsoever. It was with great satisfaction, then, that the Dignified Gentleman in Black Tie announced Pittas would still be proceeding with the evening’s performance, but “he asks that you please have pity and patience with him”. Classily done, and kudos to him for pushing through, but it did grate me when he broke character in the first half to thank and blow kisses to the audience after a solo performance.
Happily, this broken fourth wall was my only major critique of the entire production. Carmen is probably the best opera for anyone who thinks opera isn’t for them, or who thinks opera is too scary to enjoy. The overture to Act 1 is immediately recognisable, as is Carmen’s aria Habanera, and there are motifs carried throughout that, even if you had never actively sought out classical music a day in your life, you would still be able to hum along.
No-one can deny the impressive talent of Virginie Verrez as Carmen. Singing in her mother tongue is an obvious advantage, but even so her ability to act not just whilst singing, but through singing, is absolutely mesmerising. Placing her dancing in direct comparison to the trained flamenco talent of Josie Sinnadurai was perhaps a misstep, but I was too engrossed to care. Special mention must go to my favourite bad guys: Benjamin Bevan as Dancaire and Joe Roche as Remendado. The comically menacing mafia duo are such stereotypical roles to inhabit, but Bevan and Roche did it brilliantly, and their harmonies were gorgeous to boot.
The staging itself was ridiculously impressive: a massive, imposing, clever open space. The set was used dynamically; props cleverly; and all scenery moved by the cast themselves rather than a supporting crew. Everything was very smooth considering the company is on tour and having to to get used to a new stage on a regular basis.
It’s not just the physical staging that poses a challenge, but the content itself. Clair Rowden, quite rightly, calls Carmen an “unenviable task […] of staging the murder of an independent and sensual woman as entertainment.” Carmen’s murder by her ex-lover Don Jose is an abrupt but unsurprising climax, the ramifications of which is left wholly unexplored. Carmen’s sexual freedom is portrayed brilliantly, but it’s a complex play to navigate. It would be amiss to not mention that Carmen also deals with immigration and police brutality. It’s an opera, therefore, that tackles heavy issues, though possibly not with a perspective that the majority would agree with today. Nevertheless, it’s an opera that can be easily transferred into pretty much any time period. Which says a lot about how little has really changed.
And I can’t finish without giving massive appreciation and love to the WNO for their bilingual programme, and for printing the cast and crew together in alphabetical order. That’s the kind of equality I like to see.