Monday, 12 June 2017

Respecting the drama: Annabel Arden's production of 'Carmen' at the Grange Festival

Bizet: Carmen - Tiago Matos, Christophe Poncet de Solages, Philip Rhodes, Na'ama Goldman - The Grange Festival 2017 (Photo ©Robert Workman)
Bizet: Carmen - Tiago Matos, Christophe Poncet de Solages, Philip Rhodes, Na'ama Goldman
The Grange Festival 2017 (Photo ©Robert Workman)
Bizet Carmen; Na'ama Goldman, Leonard Capalbo, Shelley Jackson, Phillip Rhodes, dir: Annabel Arden, cond: Jean-Luc Tingaud; The Grange Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2017
Star rating: 4.5

A vividly engaging account of Bizet's opera performed with a sure sense of style

Bizet: Carmen - Leonardo Capalbo, Na'ama Goldman - The Grange Festival 2017 (Photo ©Robert Workman)
Leonardo Capalbo, Na'ama Goldman - (Photo ©Robert Workman)
The Grange Festival, artistic director Michael Chance, has opened at Northington Grange giving everyone a chance to see what changes have arisen from this change of festival at the old location. For our first visit we caught the opening night of Annabel Arden's new production of Bizet's Carmen on Sunday 11 June 2017. Conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the pit, the cast included Na'ama Goldman as Carmen, Leonardo Capalbo as Don Jose, Shelley Jackson as Micaela and Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo. There were also two extra characters, Aicha Kossoko and Tonderai Munyevu as Commere and Compere. Designs were by Joanna Parker (costume co-designer Ilona Karas) with video by Dick Straker, lighting by Peter Mumford. Thankfully, the opera comique version of the opera was used, with dialogue by Meredith Oakes.

Almost before the overture, the opera opened with Aicha Kossoko and Tonderai Munyevu on-stage, almost conjuring the piece from a large shawl. Throughout, Kossoko and Munyevu acted as guides and interpreters, telling us what was going on and involving themselves in the action, as if they were using magic to create the story for us. The French dialogue was stripped to the bone (in what production is it not, nowadays), with Kossoko and Munyevu adding detail and background. The disadvantage of this was that there were places where, instead of hearing the characters developing in dialogue, we were told what was happening. But this version respected Bizet's mixed use of sung passages, melodrama and pure spoken text which is one of the opera's distinctive features.

Bizet: Carmen - Shelley Jackson, Grigory Soloviov, ensemble - The Grange Festival 2017 (Photo ©Robert Workman)
Shelley Jackson, Grigory Soloviov & ensemble (Photo ©Robert Workman)
Conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud studied with Manuel Rosenthal, who himself played the violin at the Opera Comique in the 1920s and knew people who had taken part in the premiere of Carmen. Whilst the programme book credited Fritz Oeser's edition of the opera, the version used by Tingaud was admirably traditional and avoided any of Oeser's eccentricities.

In many other respects, Bizet's Carmen is a tricky opera to get right. Arden and Parker clearly understood that, on a stage the size of the Grange Festival's less is more. Parker's set was a simple textured black backdrop (only in later acts did we realise it was made up of hundreds of draped shawls), with the the metal superstructure beneath being revealed at times. The playing area was articulated with platforms and ramps moved by the cast. There was very little scene setting, instead Arden used her young cast to admirable effect, this was very much about the characters and the ensemble. Arden and Parker (jointly credited with the movement) drew a highly expressive, very physical performance from the ensemble which engaged throughout. Costumes were modern-dress, loosely 1970s with standard fatigues for the soldiers.

Whilst I was not keen on the use of the two narrators, Kossoko and Munyevu, I cannot fault their performance. Elsewhere in the opera, Arden had a good feel for Bizet's distinctive stylistic mix. I enjoyed the way she brought out the musical comedy aspect of the smugglers Dancaire (Tiago Matos), Christophe Ponce de Solage (Remendado) and their girls Frasquita (Marianne Croux) and Mercedes (Filipa van Eck), without ever resorting to low comedy. Tingaud ensured that the music for these four, particularly the ensembles, was nicely pointed but things could turn nasty in an instant such as the ensemble after the card trio in Act Three, which started light but then at the end the smugglers round on Don Jose.


Bizet: Carmen - Grange Festival Chorus - The Grange Festival 2017 (Photo ©Robert Workman)
Grange Festival Chorus (Photo ©Robert Workman)
The Israeli mezzo-soprano Na'ama Goldman sprang to fame in 2012 when she stepped in at the last moment to sing the title role in Carmen at the Masada Festival. She made an enchanting and unhackneyed Carmen, bringing a freshness to the role. In a theatre the size of The Grange she was able to sing Carmen's solos with a beautifully shaped, unforced line, sometimes reducing both musical and physical gesture down to telling details. She managed to convey Carmen's complex mix, so that the fatalism in the later acts did not come out of nowhere, and she avoided gloomy portentousness. The voice had a lightness to it, and a nice sheen, but the lower register still told.

American-Italian tenor Leonardo Capalbo is a lyric who seems to be moving into more dramatic territory. He really brought out Don Jose's neediness and sense of obsession, creating a strong portrait the character's downward spiral. Thanks to the extra information from Kossoko and Munyevu we knew that he already had gambling problems and Capalbo's Don Jose was flawed from the beginning of the action. Musically I felt that there were times when Capalbo was pushing a little against the grain of his voice. Moments like 'La fleur que tu m'avais jetée' were best when he sang with a quiet, unforced lyricism. But Don Jose is as much about character as about beauty of tone, and Capalbo showed musicality and intelligence here.

Shelley Jackson made a warmly expressive Micaela, though she seemed to take time to really find her feet. The Act One duet with Capalbo was nicely sung but did not quite achieve the sense of radiant innocence which it needs, but in Act Three Jackson really brought out Micaela's hidden reserves of strength.

Bizet: Carmen - Marianne Croux, Na'ama Goldman, Filipa van Eck - The Grange Festival 2017 (Photo ©Robert Workman)
Marianne Croux, Na'ama Goldman, Filipa van Eck (Photo ©Robert Workman)
The standard of sung French was a little variable, but on the whole creditable though Capalbo sometimes resorted to Italian vowels. Baritone Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo impressed because he not only sang with decent French but actually sang with elements of French style giving the music a slight nasal twang which was perfect. In this relatively small theatre, he was able to demonstrate his nicely fluid top, and decent low notes in the Toreadors song. For all the fame of the music, this is a role which can easily fall flat in the theatre, and Rhodes ensured that it didn't.

The smaller roles were all finely done, acutely avoiding caricature and seamlessly forming part of the dynamic and dramatic ensemble. Filipa van Eck and Marianne Croux made a fine pairing as Mercedes and Frasquita, creating a neat double act whilst differentiating the characters and forming a fine foil for Goldman's Carmen. Tiago Matos and Christophe Poncet de Solages caught the operetta elements of Le Dancaire and le Remendado but made it a characterful double act which never fell into hackneyed comedy. Grigory Soloviov was a handsome but dim Zuniga, whilst Toby Girling created a character out of very little with Morales.

The chorus was almost a character in its own right singing with unforced enthusiasm and engaging charm, whilst creating a very vivid dramatic atmosphere thanks to Arden and Parker's extensive movement plot. The performance took advantage of the youth of the singers to project with lively engagement.

In the pit, Jean-Luc Tingaud brought a real sense of style, drawing some nicely sophisticated performances from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra whilst never pushing the piece too far in the direction of either operetta or grand tragedy.

The sound design rather favoured the spoken narrators too much so that Kossoko and Munyevu seemed to be operating in a different aural world to the rest of the cast. A more naturalistic balance might have made their contributions less intrusive.

Bizet: Carmen - Na'ama Goldman - The Grange Festival 2017 (Photo ©Robert Workman)
Bizet: Carmen - Na'ama Goldman - The Grange Festival 2017 (Photo ©Robert Workman)
Ultimately this was quite a dark production, which respected Bizet's overall drama but brought light and shade by respecting the style and character of the music. Arden drew vivid performances from all of her ensemble, and whilst I was less enamoured of the idea of using the narrators, I cannot fault the performers for the vividness of the engagement and a strong sense of style.

This review also appears on OperaToday.com

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